Internet Nostalgia

Let’s Revisit the Ice Bucket Challenge

Sometimes the Internet isn’t all bad.

Welcome to part 10 of our Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at phenomena that captured the imagination and attention of the internet for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. This series looks back at those olden times, and what they told us about the internet, and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com. Last week, we looked at 2 Girls, 1 Cup. This week: The Ice Bucket Challenge.

Date: Summer 2014.

The Story: At first, the Ice Bucket Challenge had nothing to do with ALS at all. It began on The Golf Channel, of all places, with various golfers on the channel’s morning show pouring cold water on their heads for charity — any charity. But a former Boston College athlete named Pete Frates, who had recently been diagnosed with ALS, caught wind of the Challenge and made it the centerpiece of his fundraising efforts. Because Frates (who died in December 2019) was beloved in the Boston area and was active on social media, he became the spark. Suddenly, every major figure in Boston was doing the Ice Bucket Challenge as a way to raise money in the fight against ALS. Boston’s an influential city. And suddenly it was everywhere.

The premise was simple: Take a bucket of cold water, say the names of three people you challenged to do the same (and/or give money to fight ALS), and then pour the water over your head. And just about everybody did it. Bill Gates did it. Mark Zuckerberg did it. (Looking graceful as always.) George W. Bush did it. LeBron James did it. My dad, who I didn’t even know understood how to use his phone, did it, and challenged me. President Obama didn’t do it, but it was so large that he acknowledged it and donated instead.

One of the reasons he might not have done it? One of the guys who challenged him to do it was … this guy.

It was everywhere.

Pop culture crossover: Seriously, everywhere.

My personal favorite might have been the radio yuckster who made the dubious decision to pour the ice cold water on himself while wearing headphones that were plugged in.

What we’ve learned: The Ice Bucket Challenge, rather quickly, went from a good-natured novelty to mostly tiresome gimmick. (I might argue the exact moment that happened was when Donald Trump agreed to do it.) I remember, by the end of it, actively hoping no one challenged me; once my dad did, I just gave money to ALS research so I could move on with my day.

But the thing about that is I actually did give money to ALS research. Many, many people did. The ALS Association ended up bringing in more than $115 million in donations from the Ice Bucket Challenge, a truly staggering amount for any charity. And you know what? It worked. According to a 2019 report, that funding has had a tangible, “transformative” effect on fighting ALS. They have made actual progress. They might just beat this thing.

The Association’s investment of Ice Bucket Challenge funds had a direct impact on the fight against ALS, including the discovery of five new genes connected to ALS. Researchers used their funding for new clinical trials to test potential treatments, and the Association’s clinical network saw a 50 percent expansion, RTI found. The ALS Association committed nearly $90 million around the world in research funding between 2014 and 2018, including $81.2 million across 275 research grants in the United States and an additional $8.5 million internationally. The Association also used Ice Bucket Challenge money to invest in more researchers, expanding the network of scientists working to develop treatments and a cure. From 2014 to 2018, The ALS Association awarded 322 grants to 237 different scientists for ALS research, RTI reported. Both the size and density of the Association’s network of scientists increased from 2014 to 2018, as researchers around the world found new ways to work together and share resources. Collaborations increased from 71 grantees forming 229 unique co-author pairs in 2014 to 96 grantees forming 471 unique co-author pairs in 2018.

The Ice Bucket Challenge ended up being the rarest of all Internet beasts: It was something that went viral and ended up being an unequivocal public good. The Internet helped the world. It rarely does that.

It is difficult to fathom how an Ice Bucket Challenge would go over today. (They tried the last few years to get it back going again, with middling success.) The minute it started to become popular, we’d all start questioning the motives behind it, and then someone problematic would do it (we would absolutely get a Matt Gaetz Ice Bucket Challenge), and then the scammers and charlatans would get involved, and it would be ruined before it ever got started. In 2014, we do something viral and fun and believe we were changing the world. In 2021, we would never allow ourselves to believe such a thing to be possible. Which is what’s ironic about it: We were right then, and wrong now. The Internet can be a force for good: The Ice Bucket Challenge proved that. But we’ve forgotten our own lessons. The Internet has been so bad for so long that we won’t allow it to be good. Even when it can be. Even when it should be.

Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper next month. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of five books, including “How Lucky,” in bookstores now. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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