The internet’s claim that the Ice Bucket Challenge is “ubiquitous” is understatement, but the use of the term implies its over-reach, its annoying domination. True enough, within hours of its seizure of FaceBook and Twitter, Vine and YouTube, critics of the social movement rose in efforts to shout it down, using such click-worthy headline tactics such as “X Destroys the Ice Bucket Challenge,” “Y Ends the Ice Bucket Challenge Forever,” or—as I write this—Forbes‘ “Why The Ice Bucket Challenge Can Kill.”

Let’s set aside the complaint that social media feeds are filled with annoying video: this is hardly sufficient reason to begrudge the millions of charitable dollars raised, and there have been far worse infestations: Miley’s twerking videos, Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” all things Chris Crocker, and beauty contest interview questions all come to mind. Instead let me address a few of the more prominent criticisms and then explain why I remain in support of the ALS campaign.

“It’s Wasting Water.”

Yes. In terms of what water is intended for, many buckets of water have been used. Perhaps even a million or three. There is drought in California. There are people around the world who need water. The next great wars will be fought over water. Absolutely. And these are terrible things.

How much water has been “wasted?” I use the quotation marks because we need to remember that this water does have a purpose: to raise awareness and thus money for an important cause. But more on that in a moment. Let’s assume 5 million gallons of water have been lost ($80 million raised so far, so assuming that maybe 1/3 of those who do that challenge even write a check for $100 and each uses about two gallons for the challenge). I suspect I am high here, but we can be certain it’s not 20 million gallons or 50 million gallons. Sounds like a lot.

  • In 2009, the US was losing7 billion gallons of water every day simply from leaking infrastructure.
  • The modern dishwasher uses about 10 gallons of water for each load. Handwashing dishes is usually about double that.
  • The average car wash uses 35 to 40 gallons.
  • Most swimming pools loseabout 1000 gallons each month in evaporation.
  • Las Vegas uses roughly 70% of its water to support 60 golf courses and grass lawns.

This list could go on, of course. The point is that when it comes both to scale and to purpose, a strong case can be made that the Ice Bucket Challenge is a better use for water than many of our daily activities. More, if we want to campaign about water waste—I still have a hard time remembering to turn off the faucet while I brush my teeth—we have better targets. (About 95% of household water goes down the drain.)

**On a side note, the energy use for the production of ice is largely negligible, as well. My guess is that very few freezers were turned on solely to create ice for the challenge. Even if you count the caloric energy use, we could easily assemble another list of larger offenders, much larger.

“Many People Don’t Give to the Charity.”

Yes. Many do not. Set aside the “rules” of the Challenge which suggest that it’s a Bucket or Donation deal; I think most would agree that the spirit of the Challenge is that everyone gives. It’s hard to determine how many do or don’t, but let’s assume only a measly 30% give (my number above). Again, I suspect it’s more than that, but 1) those 30% are hundreds of times more than ALS has received before, 2) humans cheat on all kinds of social media statuses—is this news?, and 3) even those who don’t give spread the information to others. The smallest activity causes a ripple—and in this case a tidal wave. What has made the challenge work is not only that people give, but that people share.

“It’s More About the Ice Than the Charity.”

Yes, for some. But how much discussion has there been about ALS prior to this summer? This argument seems to be, “Some people are shallow.” And to this I respond, “Is this news?”

“You Shouldn’t Need a Meme to Give to Charity.”

Yes. People should be charitable. It’s a virtue. But this, too, strikes me as a bit elitist. Towards new donors to ALS, it’s like saying, “Well, they’re not real donors, because they did it through a meme.” Isn’t the goal of every charity to get more people to donate? Isn’t this what’s happening? Are we really condemning the success of the ALS campaign because of our disappointment in human virtue? Is this the campaign that taught us that too few are charitable?

“There Are Other Charities That Need Attention.”

Yes. Absolutely. And are we giving to them, too? While my guess is that few of the Ice Bucketers actually write a check, I also suppose that fewer of the critics support any of the charities they name in their criticisms. But they should. I don’t disagree with the criticism; I just don’t see why it has been issued as a forced choice against ALS. All charities are looking for ways to raise revenue; ALS happened to find one that worked. If it had been Kids Wish Network (which spends less than 3¢ per dollar given) or The Global Hunger Project or Doctors Without Borders or Habitat for Humanity, wouldn’t the same argument apply?

It’s also true that we could do a better job at choosing charities, if statistics and facts count more than tearful Sarah McLachlan songs. We lost over ½ million people in the US each year to heart disease but Jump Rope for Heart isn’t taking off the same way. Our money goes further and has more impact in the developing world than it does in the United States. And collection agencies sometimes take more of our donated money than the charity receives. But ALS isgiven a high grade (B+) by CharityWatch for its responsible spending.

“It Won’t Make A Difference in Finding a Cure.”

This, too, may be true. Government funding for research, cut during the most recent sequester travesty, is always more than private donations. Your $100 will do little. Even so, more videos mean more awareness, more public outcry, and that can mean more aggressive lobbying back in DC.

I’m a little cautious about criticizing any program or anyone who is working to do good in the world.

On the other hand, there are many reasons to embrace and learn from this phenomenon.

It Works.

Suddenly and—if ALS is smart it understands this—for a brief time, donations to one of the world’s many needs has skyrocketed. Frankly, I’m a little cautious about criticizing any program or anyone who is doing good in the world. This time it’s not a mere celebrity endorsement or guilt-torturing kitten face that inspired giving. People do it, and they encourage others to.

And if it isn’t causing damage along the way, then we should embrace it. Is the death in the UK too high a price, or is this a case of someone tragically miscalculating a different stunt of his own creation? Is the water wasted during these next few viral weeks too high a price versus the systemic waste which has become so “ubiquitous” that we scarcely notice it?

It’s Positive Social Media Use.

Upworthy exists to counteract so much of the dark political stuff which dominates the American social media these past years of war/corruption/recession, and I could argue that it, too, is inherently aggressive in its topics. FailBlog and Kitten-A-Day exist for the same reasons.

More, it’s a determined step up from slacktivism, the idea that hitting a “Like” button strikes a blow in advocating for any cause. Slacktivism alleviates guilt, by and large, but this does require—at the very least—genuine inconvenience on the part of the donor to accomplish. Yes, they gain social acceptance and a snack for their own narcissism along the way, but no act we do is ever singular in its motivation or its effects. In other words, Bill Gates may get a tax write-off for his donation, but no one is turning down his check.

I’ve long explained to my students that good PR involves verification, some indication that the consumer is giving back, marking that the content pushed at them has had an impact. The Ice Bucket Challenge does this handily. And, surprise, many charities are now working hard to match it. One recent approach is to post a status saying you won a lot of money with a lottery scratch ticket. Then, everyone who Likes the status get a response from you about breast and prostate cancer—not as clever or fun, but . . . . As The Wall Street Journalsuggests, this approach is changing the way nonprofits work. And social media teaches us something new again!

We can hate the sociological effects of social media, but it is where much of our understanding of the world comes from. Was the TV really that much better? And show me a newspaper or magazine campaign that has done as well. Mercifully, the viral scourge of the Ice Bucket Challenge will dwindle. My bigger worry is what will replace it.

It Crosses Demographics.

And too few activities we do these days cross generation and class, political lines and gender ones.

It’s Entertaining (for Most).

Yes, you may not like it. But people are having fun, sharing with others, and are doing it in the name of giving. Various celebrities are followed: how many have seen Sarah Palin’s Challenge? (I’ll wait while you Google it.) Pretty funny, huh?

All of the Variations Are Welcomed.

Patrick Stewart merely writes a check in his video. Several of my friends have done the Challenge and given the money to different charities that they have chosen. Even those who vocally reject the Challenge—Obama amongst them, but not former President Bush—increase its visibility.

And I admire many of the reasons. I never thought, for instance, that I would praise Pamela Anderson for anything. But her rejection was—thoughtfully—on the grounds that too much ALS research depends upon animal testing. If you are against animal testing, the Challenge has, ironically, raised the visibility of the issue for PETA and others.

The Rice Bucket Challenge is a variation which raises awareness of food issues in India. It asks only that you share rice. If you want to do the same thing and improve your English vocabulary, you can also participate daily in’s word games and donate food at the same time.

Some folks in California, rather than emptying swimming pools across the state, are starting the Sand Bucket Challenge. And, one of the most pointed, is the Palestinian Rubble Bucket Challenge. It helps to keep some perspective.

Most importantly, the critics of the Ice Bucket Challenge (for any of the reasons) promote themselves and their causes through it, appropriating the trend for their own agendas. Do you want a discussion about memes and charities? We now have one. Do you want to debate charitable causes? Now we do more. You wish to argue water issues, animal testing, and slacktivism? Let’s! What better topics than the VMAs, What Dr. Who Companion Are You?, or “22 Shocking Ways Ashton Kutcher Shaves”!


No matter where we fall on the ALS scheme, it underscores a fairly simply concept: we are at our best when we give. We are happiest when we give. We are purpose-driven when we give. And when we give, we change.

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