The Ice Bucket Challenge in the Age of Social Media

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately or you're on an extended vacation with no Internet access, you’ve seen – and maybe even participated in – the year’s biggest viral trend: the “ice bucket challenge” that’s been sweeping the country.

UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, former Mayor Henry Cisneros, and former Mayor Phil Hardberger made good on their ice bucket challenges in Main Plaza. The Spurs Coyote was on hand to help – can you imagine how hot that costume must get in the summer? The official video will be uploaded to Wolff's YouTube account soon and we'll update this story with a link as soon as it's made available. In the meantime, enjoy the before, during and after photos in the photo gallery above.

"The perfect way to stay cool on a hot day in San Antonio," Cisneros said.

This fundraising challenge, which has been gathering steam online since July 29, involves dumping a bucket of ice water on your head after filming yourself to prove you’ve done it and sharing the clip on social media, or donating $100 to help fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

After completing the challenge, you single out a few friends by name to take the challenge, as well. They have 24 hours to comply, and the quest keeps gathering steam.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg challenged fellow titan Bill Gates, and the resulting video has almost 16 million views on YouTube.

While it might seem like a narcissistic selfie or even (gasp) a chain letter for a good cause, there’s no question that it’s gone absolutely viral.

As of Monday, the ice bucket challenge had raised more than $79.7 million in donations, compared to $2.5 million during the same time period last year. The ALS Association says those donations have come from existing donors as well as “1.3 million new donors” so far. And those figures are increasing hourly.

This seemingly spontaneous challenge — though versions of it have existed online for months if not years, according to a Slate magazine investigation published Saturday – is enough to make any self-respecting local nonprofit professional green with envy.

We checked with a few of them, along with some local PR whizzes, to see how they felt about one of the most wildly successful gimmicks in a long, long time.

“Yes, I have ice-bucket envy,” said Julie Coan, senior vice president and chief operating officer at KLRN-TV. “I’m trying to come up with something just as clever and effective ... I find fundraising successes like this one inspiring. They help the rest of us up our game and think outside the box.”

PR professional Sandy Levy, former communications director for a national nonprofit, admitted that she had envy “in awareness only.”

“The benefit is the ability to share your mission or message with the masses,” Levy explained with caution. “Ask yourself if the same number of people you have seen drop an ice bucket over their head have made an actual donation. More to the point, ask if the same masses who have done the challenge know the top three indicators of ALS.”

She’s got a point. As a disease, ALS isn’t a top killer. It’s not among the top 10 leading causes of death in America, as listed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

ALS causes 3.9 deaths per 100,000 people. The same number of deaths are caused each year by birth defects, drowning deaths in people less than 4 years old or more than 85 years old, or from firearms, respectively.

From a more global perspective, it's the same prevalence as deaths from poison in Nepal, epilepsy in Turkmenistan or mouth cancer in the Netherlands, according to data from the World Health Organization. None of these incidents have likely benefited from such a wildfire surge in public awareness.

According to the ALS Association, this fatal, progressive disorder of the nerves and muscles affects more than 30,000 Americans, with more than 5,600 people diagnosed every year, or roughly 15 new cases per day. Of those suffering from the disease, 60 percent are men and 93 percent are Caucasian.

That’s not to begrudge ALS its moment in the sun, however. It’s a particularly devastating illness with no known cure. In fact, U.S. researchers have only recently started collecting data on the disease. Their first report came out on July 24, and the ice bucket challenge started going viral five days later.

While the ALS Association was the unexpected beneficiary of this unprecedented windfall of online attention, they were sufficiently media-savvy to jump right in with a number of ways for interested members of the public to keep the ball rolling.

They’ve created numerous social media graphics to download from their site, from cover photos for Facebook and Twitter to two profile photo options for Facebook. They request that users employ certain hashtags when doing the challenge on Twitter, like #icebucketchallenge, to reinforce the growing awareness.

A popular Internet meme taking on the #icebucketchallenge.

A popular Internet meme critical of the #icebucketchallenge.

And to counter the handful of Internet scolds who suggest how wasteful this must make Americans appear to developing countries, the ALS Association even has a few tips:

“Please be thoughtful about water usage! If you’re in an area of the country or world affected by drought, repurpose the water for later use.”

They also suggest people help spread ALS awareness by becoming an advocate, participating in a (traditional) walk against the disease, or "just making a donation instead.”

To be clear, not everyone has responded to the challenge favorably. A few, notably President Barack Obama, declined to participate. He said he donated money instead.

At least one Facebook wag of my acquaintance made it abundantly clear how he felt: “If you send me an ALS challenge,” he stated, “I’ll straight up murder you.”

Counter-memes have also been circulating. In the wake of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, black comedian and actor Orlando Jones posted his own bucket challenge, filled with ammunition, intended to “reverse the hate.”

And there’s a photo of actor Laurence Fishburne, who played Morpheus in “The Matrix,” looking grim, with words superimposed over his photo, saying simply, “What if I told you...you didn’t have to dump ice on your head to donate to charity.”

Quite true. But one silver lining for those who do it is that the ALS Association handles the donations it receives better than many other charities in America. It has high ratings from independent charity evaluators CharityNavigator.org, and gives about 72.4 percent of the money it raises directly to the programs it supports (that’s good.)

In the particularly bleak news cycle of the past three weeks, during which this meme has taken off, it might well be considered a welcome relief from unremittingly brutal news from around the world: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS,) Gaza, Ferguson, and the murder of journalist James Foley. Its prankish nature, making it perhaps the Internet successor to the old dunk tank, might even be part of its charm.

“Try doing this in winter!” chortles longtime PR specialist John Smith, the former director of public relations and marketing for Operation Homefront. “There’s no textbook (for its massive popularity,)" he admits, terming it somewhat the luck of the draw.

“In the social media age we’re in right now,” he said, “there’s no formula yet for this, no road map.”

“If you can do anything with ‘fun’ in it as a fundraiser, and get people to give joyously, you’ve won," he added sagely.

Part of its charm, Smith said, is that individuals are doing it -- not “corporations for tax purposes,” which has often been the backbone of successful fundraising drives.

Melanie Cawthon is the director of marketing and resource development for local nonprofit Reaching Maximum Independence (RMI,) a 501(c)(3) that helps disabled adults work and live as independently as possible.

“Fundraising is tough, especially when it’s not a disease or condition that impacts you personally,”  she admitted. "With ours, there’s not even the hope of a cure."

“You have to educate people about the issue, and you have to develop that compassion and passion for the work you’re doing in the community,” she said. "Speaking for many fundraisers and PR professionals, she added, “We’re so pleased for their success, but we all wish, of course, that it had been us.”

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