To ice or not to ice?
Kavya Gopal, Regina Marie Lee
Over the last two weeks, more than 20 students have done it. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has spilled over into Yale-NUS. First, students were challenged by their friends back in the United States. They then tagged their peers, inundating social media feeds with videos of people pouring ice buckets on themselves. Even President Lewis, Rector Mcadoo and Dean Farley completed the challenge after being nominated by students.
There are many variations of the challenge, but most participants choose to pour ice water on themselves, and/or donate to research for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that eventually leads to death and currently has no cure. They then upload the videos of the act onto social media, nominating other friends for the challenge to ‘raise awareness’ of the disease, or at least the challenge itself.
The Ice Bucket Challenge stands out as a unique and new form of activism due to its viral nature and entertainment value. The ALS Association, a US organisation which receives the bulk of donations from the challenge, reported on Aug. 27 that it had received a whopping $117.80 million (USD $94.3 million) in donations in less than a month. Yet, some concerns have been raised about how meaningful the challenge is. Some who have been tagged have conscientiously refused to join in.
For Julianne Thomson ’18, one of the first at Yale-NUS to undertake the challenge, it was a good way to gain and spread awareness about ALS. She said, “To be honest, I didn’t know what ALS was before, but now I do. Even my friend in Indonesia on Facebook asked what the challenge was about, so I explained it to him.”
Zach Mahon ’17 was afraid that people would skip his video, so he attempted it creatively – by pouring ice water from the 17 floor of Residential College 4. He explained, “I thought that if it could be a little different, people would actually watch the video instead of scrolling past. I also made sure to talk about how important it is to donate.”
In response to criticisms that the challenge is a lazy form of activism, Mahon said, “At the end of the day, the numbers back up the success. The ALS foundation received much more in donations compared to the same time period last year.”
Still, Ami Firdaus ’17 raised good point about how such foundations use their money – “You don’t necessarily know where your money is going, so I don’t think it’s a very informed way of supporting the cause. It’s very easy to say that you support the cause by pouring water on yourself and thinking that you’re giving ALS publicity, but I think most people don’t even donate.”
Such quick, emotionally motivated donations may counterintuitively prevent donors from critically engaging with the issue. Silvia Lara ’18 explained, “All of my friends have done it, so I feel like they already know about ALS. I also felt like many were just doing it out of peer pressure.” She had declined to do the challenge.
Yet, others felt that doing the challenge was important in addition to donating, because the videos helped to highlight the cause to one’s network of friends. Alex Pont ’18 said, “At first I thought doing the challenge wouldn’t make a difference and that it was only for fun, so I made a donation instead. But after watching more videos, I realised how powerful [a viral video is] and decided to do it.”
President Pericles Lewis, who was nominated by Muhd Amrullah ‘17, also accepted the challenge. In response to concerns of water wastage arising from the challenge, he said, “It is very important to give clean water to people who don’t have it, but we are not wasting water that would otherwise go to help people in those situations. I’m sure we consume much more water when we take a shower than used in this challenge.”
For Rector Brian Mcadoo, his decision to do the challenge a second time in Yale-NUS was a conscientious one. “This particular methodology has raised a staggering amount of money for something most people hadn’t even heard of. Without doing the silly gimmicky thing, it wouldn’t have gone as viral. If we can figure out how to tap into that energy for other causes, that would be a good way of using social media to change the world.”
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge brings up several questions about effective activism. Does dumping a bucket of ice on yourself make a difference? Is raising awareness simply about stating the name of the organisation but giving very little explanation for its activities? Does activism on social media bring about sustained and meaningful change?
The nature of activism has definitely transformed. But it is important to ensure that our actions as activists are meaningful and thoughtful, not just feel-good fun.