Activism or ‘Slacktivism’? Can the #IceBucketChallenge really change the world?

South Australian Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis, taking up the Ice Bucket Challenge. Photo: News Corp. Australia.

IN years gone by you might have been persuaded to give to charity by a letter in the mail or a kind stranger with a rattling tin. Nothing much has changed, except the tin is now social media and the strangers rattling it are Oprah, Bill Gates and Justin Bieber. But is social media activism a legitimate way to change the world? Or just a cheap way to make ourselves feel good?
You’re an alien just touched down on planet earth. Here’s what you see. The earthlings are filling buckets with icy water, drenching themselves with the frozen slush and filming the whole strange ritual on their electronic devices.
You’d have to be from another planet to have missed the online phenomenon currently going ‘viral’ on social media and populating (or is that polluting?) our Facebook news feeds and Twitter timelines, every time we log on — the “Ice Bucket Challenge”.
The challenge calls on people to dump a bucket of icy water over themselves, post the photo or video on social media and nominate two or three other people to take up the challenge themselves.
The campaign is to raise awareness (and money) for the neurodegenerative disorder ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous US baseballer, who was a sufferer, and more commonly in Australia as motor neurone disease.
The icy water appears to have no particular significance to ALS, apart from serving as an invigorating wake up call to take notice of the disease.
As The Wall Street Journal reported, the concept had a “low key” start among professional golfers, as a way to support their favourite charities.
It’s been anything but low key since, attracting the support big Hollywood names like Stephen Spielberg, pop music stars like Justin Bieber, billionaires like Bill Gates and even the king of social media himself, Mark Zuckerberg.
The campaign has also been in the news for entirely different reasons.
In a tragic and bizarre turn of events, one of the pioneers of the ALS challenge Corey Griffin, 27, tragically drowned last week in a diving accident, after attending an event raising money for ALS.
Griffin was a friend of former Boston College baseballer Peter Frates, whose own battle with ALS helped the Ice Bucket Challenge take off around the world.
And despite the fact ALS, as an acronym, is little known in Australia, the campaign has taken on a life of its own here, with everyone from players from the Port Adelaide Football Club and Premier Jay Weatherill copping a bucket of freezing water in order to raise cold hard cash.
The social tools being used to wage a war against ALS — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram — maybe relatively new, but the idea of encouraging people to take some action, even a small action, to make the world a better place, isn’t.
Earlier this year, people around the world, from Michelle Obama to David Cameron, joined a social media campaign under the hashtag #bringbackourgirls to force the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram to return 200 schoolgirls it kidnapped for the purpose of using them as slaves and selling them for sex.
The issue struggled to get the world’s attention before the germ of a global campaign was seeded in a few angry tweets.
The whole notion of ‘social good’ was popularised in the 2000 film Pay It Forward, starring Haley Joel Osment.
In the film, seventh grader (Osment) starts a movement to change the world for the better by encouraging anyone who receives a favour to “pay it forward” by doing a favour for someone else.
In Adelaide and elsewhere in Australia, several cafes have introduced “suspended coffee” programs, which let people buying coffee for themselves pay for an additional cup, to be redeemed down the track by someone in need.
It’s not world peace, but a hot cup of coffee on a cold night makes a world of difference if you’re sleeping rough.
But can a silly, frivolous idea like the Ice Bucket Challenge actually make a difference?
At least some commentators have wondered whether the campaign is really ‘activism’ — positive actions to achieve positive outcomes — or just another example of ‘slacktivism’ — a token way to get involved in causes that probably won’t achieve much anyway.
But the numbers already suggest remarkable success.
The hashtag #icebucketchallenge has reportedly been tweeted more than 118,000 times since the campaign began on July 15 and, according to Facebook “the challenge has reached almost every country in the world”, engaging more than 28 million people and generating 2.4 million videos.
On a list of the 10 countries most active in a Facebook conversation about the challenge, Australia was second on the list, after the US.
But the campaign has done much more than raise awareness — the American ALS Association has raised almost $US23 million — about 20 times the money raised over the same period last year.
The money has been flowing in here, too.
Carol Birks, Executive Director of Motor Neurone Disease Australia says the association has received about $50,000 in care and research donations in just over a week.
“I know people out there are saying that it’s not such a good idea, but it is,” Ms Birks said.
“It’s raising awareness and it’s raising donations and more importantly people with MND have been reporting what it means to them.”
Dr Karen Nelson-Field, Senior Researcher at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of the UniSA, is not surprised at the campaign’s success, saying it hits at least a couple of sweet spots that drive people to share content via social media.
“It’s got what we call ‘personal triumph,’ which is about overcoming adversity and it’s often linked to inspiration,” Dr Nelson-Field says.
“On top of that there’s a level of hilarity in that a whole bunch of celebrities get wet.
“The other thing that’s driving this is the ability for it to get reach. The celebrities that it’s managed to touch have a huge following, so what it means, essentially, is that video gets in front of more eyeballs than if you just put it on my Twitter account.
“It’s like an art performance. If one person claps, quite often no one else does. But if it starts to get a standing ovation, then more people do it. The more reach you get, the more people will share.”
But what happens when sharing becomes oversharing, when a good cause becomes just another irritation in your news feed?
“Yes, there’s always going to be that point of saturation, but so what?,” Dr Nelson-Field says.
“In this case the legitimate outcome was donations, so we could be talking here for 10 hours about the success and the science behind the sharing of this video.
“But are people donating? Yes.
“Do you know what disease (the Ice Bucket Challenge) is for?
“Yes, motor neurone disease.
“To me that’s a success.”
The Advertiser’s Chief Football writer Michelangelo Rucci will take up the Ice Bucket Challenge on Friday night at Adelaide Oval before the Port v Carlton clash. To donate to Motor Neurone Disease Australia, go to mndaust.asn.au