This summer, teenagers and celebrities around the world dropped more frozen water than the polar ice caps in a remarkable viral sensation known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, designed to raise money and awareness for the fight against the fatal illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
We’ve all done it: gotten the Facebook notification saying “you’ve been tagged…” and groaned at having to carve out some time in the next 24 hours to not only film yourself dumping freezing water over your head but also to contrive a clever method of doing so, so as to garner the maximum amount of social media attention. Yet we do it anyway, regardless of the inconvenience. Why? To say that we all really, really care about ALS, a disease that affects only a small portion of our population, would be a giving millenials a bit too much philanthropic cred. If we’re being honest here, we do it for ourselves. Because we want to be good people. A wet t-shirt and a slight bout of pneumonia is a small price to pay for a sound night’s sleep.
Since last September, over two million videos have been posted on Facebook to raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the crippling neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading at first to limited movement, then to partial or complete paralysis and, usually after a two-to-five- year struggle, death. The disease is small in scope, affecting only about 30,000 Americans as of 2011, but it is by no means trivial: there is no known cure and not many treatment options, and the collateral damage of the disease on families and loved ones is tragic (alsa.org/about).
While this harrowing truth about the subject of such a silly viral trend may make you vow to unlike all your friends’ videos, I would encourage you to think again. The numbers have shown that a little narcissism can make a big difference where it counts: according to their website, the ALS Association (ALSA) has raised 106 million dollars in donations since the challenge began a year ago. That’s an insane amount of money. To give you some perspective on that number, ALSA raised about two million dollars in the same time frame before the start of the #icebucketchallenge (nytimes.com). And that’s just one organization: others in support of ALS research, like Project ALS, also reported donation increases of up to ten times (forbes.com).
That much money means a vast world of opportunities that just weren’t available to ALS research before. Not just better experimentation, but also more attention from big pharmaceuticals and talented scientists who follow the funding to make a living and who otherwise might not give ALS a second glance. Those kinds of resources might be just what it takes to make ALS the next smallpox, a quaint but laughable old fear with no capacity for actual harm. That would be quite a feat achieved through social media, and a powerful precedent for the influence of charity narcissism, a tactic that could potentially be used to raise big money for good causes.
Maybe next time we’ll be dumping scummy toilet water on our heads to raise awareness for the lack of clean drinking water in impoverished countries (like Matt Damon did) or petroleum oil to rage against BP next time it spills its load in the gulf. Either way, don’t chicken out—donate the money and help turn the cause into a viral phenomenon.
Because your narcissism could save lives.