Facebook has become saturated with videos of people dumping buckets of ice on their heads.
They're taking the #IceBucketChallenge, a viral phenomenon whose ostensible purpose is to raise money for charity. The challenge is simple: Either donate $100 to a given cause, or douse yourself with ice, film it and pass the challenge on to others via social media.
The long list of participants so far includes Matt Lauer, Martha Stewart, numerous politicians, pro athletes and several members of the Kennedy clan. President Barack Obama could be next.
As the trend has caught on, it has become linked with efforts to raise money for research on the neurodegenerative disorder ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. The Boston Globe, Mashable and others have followed the nonprofit ALS Association in crediting the idea to Pete Frates, a 29-year-old former Boston College baseball player diagnosed with ALS in 2012.
That makes for a nice origin story, but it's not quite accurate. Matt Lauer's challenge, along with that of Martha Stewart and many others, predated Frates' involvement and had nothing to do with ALS. Rather, it came from a dare that was circulating among a group of pro athletes, including golfer Greg Norman and motorcycle racer Jeremy McGrath. Those who declined the ice bath were compelled to give $100 to a charity of the challenger's choice. (Lauer donated to the Hospice of Palm Beach County.)
Watch the golfers' videos and you'll see the stunt was really just about getting their friends to film themselves doing something dumb for no reason. The charity part was an afterthought.
Altruism was also sometimes tacked on to a similar "cold water challenge" that went viral earlier this year, in which people dared one another to plunge into frigid waters. One participant, a 16-year-old Minnesota boy, dove into an icy lake and never surfaced.
Thankfully, the ice bucket version seems considerably safer, and helping people with ALS is certainly a worthy cause. It's hard to blame the ALS Association, then, for commandeering the bandwagon, or even for the bit of revisionist history in which the nonprofit credited Frates as its originator. (That misleading assertion has gained so much traction in the media that bloggers are now chiding Lauer and Stewart for neglecting to mention ALS when they took the challenge.) Turning a pointless viral meme to noble ends can only be a good thing.
And the campaign is clearly working. That's welcome news for the 12,000 Americans who have the disease, which is devastating and ultimately fatal, and for their families and future generations.
Yet it's hard to shake the feeling that, for most of the people posting ice bucket videos of themselves on Facebook, Vine and Instagram, the charity part remains a postscript. Remember, the way the challenge is set up, the ice-drenching is the alternative to contributing actual money. Some of the people issuing the challenges have tweaked the rules by asking people to contribute $10 even if they do soak themselves. Even so, a lot of the participants are probably spending more money on bagged ice than on ALS research.
As for "raising awareness," few of the videos I've seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one's own zaniness, altruism and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.
That's why I'm proposing what is sure to be an unpopular alternative to the #IceBucketChallenge. It's called the no ice bucket challenge, and it works like this:
1. Do not fetch a bucket, fill it with ice or dump it on your head.
2. Do not film yourself or post anything on social media.
3. Just donate the damn money, whether to the ALS Association or to some other charity of your choice.
And if it's an organization you really believe in, feel free to politely encourage your friends and family to do the same.
Congratulations! Not only have you contributed to a good cause, but you've done your part for the environment by conserving the energy and fresh water required to make and transport large bags of ice.
Be warned, though, the #NoIceBucketChallenge is not for the faint of heart. It requires real fortitude to give away your hard-earned cash without the promise of receiving piles of Facebook likes in return.
Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun