There was a point last night on my facebook pages where if I pressed refresh every few minutes, I would be greeted with a slew of new, yet very similar, video clips. People in various states of undress stood, talked, and were then doused in water. Yes, the Ice Bucket Challenge hit its viral high as pretty well everyone got in on the act. Now before I go any further, and land myself in hot water rather than shower under charitable streams of ice cold water, I should acknowledge that the friends I watched – or whose video selfies I rapidly skimmed through – are pleasant, charitably minded, humane individuals who undeniably want to do something more than simply mind their own business. And all credit to them for that. But did it, over the past few days, really have to be in the uniform style of a single, unvarying challenge for one clever charity?
There is an obvious danger in pricking the bubble of mass charitable giving that one comes across too readily as some sort of grinch who wants to steal charity. And it goes without saying that that is absolutely not my aim. Nor is it my aim to cast snide, superior verbal brickbats towards those who have enough humanity in them to bother to respond to a charitable call, no matter how universal the call appears to have become. But it is worth considering for a moment what the Ice Bucket Challenge tells us about ourselves, and the impact of the social media which has made it so quickly, and hugely, successful.
First, the ‘viral’ nature of the challenge reveals much about our herd instinct, and the impressive ability of facebook and twitter to manipulate it. If you’ve been in any sort of a crowd at any sort of event, you know just how easy it is to get drawn in to following the mass movement of your fellow crowd members, physically or emotionally. It really doesn’t matter who starts it, once a move gets going it is very difficult to stand in its way. The Ice Bucket Challenge has undoubtedly achieved this status.
Second, it reveals our desire to belong, to reconfirm our membership of the tribe. Getting nominated becomes a welcome thing, since it shows us that other people are willing to include us in this mass act of self-saturation. There comes a point where we really don’t want to be on the outside of this activity that everyone else is getting involved with. We need our own video to put alongside everyone else’s.
Third, it appeals to our sense of egoistic exhibitionism. No matter how retiring we may normally be, the Ice Bucket Challenge gives us an excuse to parade ourselves before our peers in a happily dramatic, fun and apparently altruistic way. We may endure a little bit of discomfort as the ice water cascades down our bodies, but even the discomfort is all part and parcel of this collective routine. The videos become just that little bit more ‘likeable’ if we do the screwed up face thing.
Finally, it suggests that we lack discrimination in the face of mass action. ALS appears to be a thoroughly worthy charity, but some might be discomfited by its promotion of stem cell research, and others might consider that its needs are not as great as other charities. Our charitable giving should be based on more secure understandings than a successful viral campaign which requires little more of us than to follow the herd by standing under a bucket of water.
In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge it would be difficult to argue that the results of the herd instinct engendered by its social media campaign will be anything other than positive. Even if it means other charities are left in the shade, one area of important medical research will have benefited and in consequence the lives of those afflicted by this tragic condition may be significantly improved. There is, nonetheless, an element of ‘charity fascism’ about all of this which could too easily be translated into other, less salubrious activities. We have seen how witch-hunts can quickly develop on twitter (witness the lamentable hounding of Alastair McAlpine, who at least had the resources to push back such twitter hounds as Sally Bercow) and it is iniquitous to see the impact of social media on promoting the jihad in Syria and Northern Iraq.
Perhaps we should be alarmed, too, at how easily we are coerced into something if it can be marketed ably enough. This comment from Scott Gilmore, writing in “Macleans” magazine , sums up the concern about the successful marketing of the ALS campaign –
The marketing gimmick is very clever. It is short, immediately understandable, and like the most popular forms of slacktivism, it is easy to do, entertaining to watch, and narcissistically self-promoting. Every screen on our desks, on our walls, and in our hands is filled with celebrities, neighbours, porn stars, and politicians showing off their earnest compassion and occasional humour.
Instead of being thinking, evaluative individuals, the Ice Bucket Challenge suggests we simply succumb to the latest fad, and no matter what its good intentions, that really should concern us.
[The Gilmore article, by the way, includes an excellent analysis of how we should be conducting our charitable giving, which is well worth reading].