How the #IceBucketChallenge Went Viral

The #IceBucketChallenge flooded Facebook feeds, drew criticism, and has been credited with raising $100 million for ALS charities.


The first time I saw the #IceBucketChallenge, I was confused. Why was my friend having a bucket of cold water dumped on her head? Couldn’t she donate to charity without the ice bath? My Facebook feed has since been overrun with people being doused in ice water, nominating others to do the same.

It was at least a week before I discovered that the #IceBucketChallenge was a campaign to raise awareness and money to fund ALS research — a neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The idea was to either take the challenge and post a video, or donate to an ALS organization.

According to Slate, the #IceBucketChallenge can be traced back as far as mid-2013, and has taken on a variety of iterations. There are examples of people with their hands in a bucket of ice water, little girls in France dumping multiple buckets of cold water over their heads, and even suburban kids putting ice on their arms for fun. But the current iteration of the challenge began in June 2014 with minor-league golfer Chris Kennedy.

It didn’t take long for the backlash to start, with people in drought affected geographies expressing concern about all the water being wasted, when people could just donate to the charity instead. Quartz contributor William MacAskill pointed out that such a powerful awareness campaign can lead to charity cannibalization:

The ice bucket challenge has done one good thing, which is raise [millions of dollars] for the ALS Association. But it’s also done a really bad thing: take money and attention away from other charities and other causes. That means that, if we want to know whether the ice bucket challenge has been on balance a good thing for the world, we’ve got to assess how effective the ALS Associations is compared with other charities.

Ghanaian actress and model Yvonne Nelson posted an image juxtaposing the waste of the #IceBucketChallenge with the shortage of clean drinking water in Africa.

And let’s not forget the spoofs. Take Ron Pearlman, who was nominated 16 times and finally decided to take the challenge by having water thrown on him while he was trying to relax with his cigar. Instead of dumping ice water on himself, Charlie Sheen made it rain another way: His bucket was filled with his $10,000 donation to the ALS foundation.

Regardless of your position about the worthiness of the ALS charities or the merits of dumping ice water over your head, the ALS #IceBucketChallenge has become a viral success. People weren’t just posting videos, they were donating to the charity as well. In the end, the #IceBucketChallenge has been credited with raising nearly $100 million for ALS charities, more than the ALS foundation made during the same period last year.

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