ALS: Ice bucket challenge

24 Aug

If you’re on the internet much or have any access to social media, you’ve probably seen dozens of videos of people dumping buckets of icy water over themselves.  This has all been a part of a campaign to raise awareness and generate donations for the ALS Association.  The campaign to generate money to the cause has gone viral and has been quite successful, reportedly over $70million has been donated in just over a month’s time.

ALS is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, as he was one of the first big-name individuals in the US to bring attention to it.  Here is the blurb from the ALS website describing the condition: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons  die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.

The rules of the ice bucket challenge are fairly simple.  You are challenged or nominated by a friend (usually through social media), and you have 24 hours to either donate money to the cause or record yourself dumping a bucket of ice water over yourself. [Many people, including us, have elected to do both – dump the ice water over yourself and donate to the cause.]  You then are responsible for nominating/challenging a few of your friends to participate.  This strategy of nominating others was obviously very successful in having the challenge spread rapidly.

It has actually been an interesting illustration of the “six degrees of separation” idea (sometimes referred to as the six degrees of Kevin Bacon).  This is the idea that you can connect any two random people in the world with 6 connections or fewer (i.e. friend of a friend of a friend…6 times).  This comes from experiments done by Stanley Milgram in the 1950s who sent letters to random people in the midwest asking them to get a packet to a named individual somewhere on the east coast. (See: “small world problem“) The packet contained rules that they were not to look up the individual and they were to pass the packet along to one individual who they thought would be able to get it to that person, or at least in a better position to get it to that person (e.g. “I know someone in New York, maybe they will be able to get it to that person” or “I know someone in Indianapolis who has family in Boston, maybe that will work”).  They found the average number of stops for the packets that made it was between 5-6.  Thus, they concluded that everyone was, on average, connected through six connections or fewer (though Milgram never referred to it at “six degrees of separation”).


In the Kevin Bacon example, it’s the idea that you can connect any random actor to Kevin Bacon using 6 or fewer films that people have worked in together.  There is even a web site that will give you the shortest path possible to Kevin Bacon.  Updated network theory will tell you that the magic number of connections in the US are closer to 3, in order to connect any two random people.

With widespread social media use by so many individuals, I’m not even a little surprised.  And this ALS challenge that has gone viral and been completed by so many people bears that out.  Here’s ours:


And how about one in slow motion just for fun:


While this movement has been wildly successful in garnering attention and raising lots of money, it has also not gone without critique.  The lines of criticism that I have noticed are things like “people don’t even know what ALS really is, they are just doing this because it’s popular”, “there are worse diseases and more worthy causes to donate to right now such as ebola or poverty, people shouldn’t just care about ALS”, “people are wasting good, clean drinking water for this campaign”.

To these critiques I would say this: ALS is a good cause.  It is a campaign that was fun and catchy and spread like wildfire; don’t be mad because it worked so well.  Yes, there are absolutely other pressing issues and causes that deserve money and attention as well, but that doesn’t mean that ALS should feel guilty about their successful campaign. Donations and causes are not a zero-sum game where if I donate to one thing or care about one thing, then I can’t donate or care about something else too.  It also should not be some sort of hierarchy where we rank causes and only the most important should receive our donations or attention. And the fact is that for many (myself included) if I wouldn’t have donated the money that I donated to ALS, I probably would not have put that money towards a different cause.  It was a bit of money that would’ve gone to paying a bill, putting in savings, or maybe getting a drink at a bar.  It’s better for ALS to get that money than no cause at all.  And even if I didn’t know a thing about ALS, the donation was still sent and will hopefully be used effectively to advance research and treatment options.  Plus, that ice cold water was actually kind of refreshing down here in South Florida after the initial shock!




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