At first it didn’t strike me as anything unusual, just another Facebook video selfie. But hang on, why was my friend taking his clothes off…and who’s that throwing a bucket of…is that freezing water…at him?? His girlfriend?? Uh-oh.
And now what is he pointing at the camera and saying? OK, OK, I’ll turn the volume up…he’s nominating somebody? Oh I get it, it’s some kind of challenge. Looks cold, but kinda fun too. I’m in good shape right now, I can do that. So what’s it in aid of anyway?
Chances are you, and almost everybody you know, have been through the above thought process during the past couple of weeks. The Ice Bucket Challenge hasn’t just gone viral, it’s become hard to escape.
Amyotrohic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) is the US term for what is known in the UK as Motor Neurone Disease, a debilitating illness which attacks nerves in the brain and spinal cord, restricting a person’s ability to move voluntarily. The disease can be fatal, and at present there is no cure.
There has been much discussion as to whether the challenge has succeeded in swelling the coffers of ALS charities. The ice bucket part is in fact the dare side of the deal, something you do in lieu of a donation, a fact wryly noted by none other than Charlie Sheen, who in his video rather cleverly tips a pile of dollars over his own head, opting for the donation rather than the ice.
The origins of the challenge are also disputed; some say it started with Peter Frates, a former captain of the Boston College Baseball team, who is an ALS sufferer, whilst other reports go further back, suggesting that it all began when a Sarasota golfer named Chris Kennedy performed the stunt on behalf of a relative with ALS, posting a video on July 15th with the hashtag #StrikeOutALS.
When all is said and done, and whatever you think about the morality of the stunt, although it has to be said it has done far more good than harm, as it has indeed raised the level of donations to ALS charities, and it has surely helped raise awareness, the biggest takeaway from the whole craze is that when we do things together, we send out an extraordinarily powerful, and positive message.
It’s hard to believe that the world’s most famous footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, has much in common with Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and even harder to believe that George W Bush is in the same boat as the 1,000 Thai volunteers planning to ice themselves en masse at Central World Bangkok on Friday, but, see for yourself; the connection may be wafer thin, but it is better than no connection at all.
Mark Zuckerberg is another challengee who may be better known as a ruthless businessman bent on world domination, but he is perhaps right about one thing. Internet.Org, his plan to “connect the world”, based on his strongly held view that “access to the internet is a basic human right”, could actually be more sensible than many people would have us believe.
Put aside morality, and for a moment try to forget the idea that deep down we all yearn to do terrible things. Just concentrate on what you can see with your eyes and hear with your ears.
That is the essence of social media, just that, and nothing more. Everything besides is a value judgement, and therefore subjective, to be debated on a different kind of soapbox.
What is abundantly clear is that the human race likes a good video, appreciates a good joke, and we all like to admire one another’s style. We like to show off, in other words, (which animal on this earth doesn’t?) and social media is making it easier than ever before to do so.
And why not! So often we are told by the media that the differences between nations and societies are so pronounced that they we can never live happily side by side, but in one viral stunt social media has put a serious dent in that argument.
Politics is one thing, leisure quite another. Most of us are so stressed out from trying to do the right thing all of the time that we just want to have a little uncomplicated, zany fun. We are generally far more amusing than we give ourselves credit for.
The history of social media is now littered with examples, some serious, others comedic, of people portraying a more understandable side to their personalities. A human being turning to face the world, and showing strangers what they are really all about.
Last year in the UK the “makeup-less selfie” campaign helped raise over £2m for Cancer Research UK. Like the Ice Bucket Challenge, it began with a few nominations, and spread because many women felt it was empowering to show the world what was underneath the make-up.
Likewise the “Harlem Shake” became an internet phenomenon because it was a chance to show the world that you too had a sense of humour, and that strutting your stuff in outrageous fashion, like the internet, was a basic human right.
When the West Indies team won the T20 cricket world cup, and did the “Gangnam Style” dance, it didn’t feel elitist in the way that some sporting events can, despite the huge win bonuses being handed out. Everybody recognised the song and felt like they were in on the joke.
When it comes to mass communication, there is no filter, no finesse, no exclusivity. It’s raw, and that’s what makes it exciting. It is hard to imagine a world without reality television, but no more than 2 decades ago, that’s exactly where we were. 2 years ago the term “selfie” hadn’t even been coined, and as for twerking? Well, let’s see if that one catches on.
You could argue that mass communication can be stage managed, edited, airbrushed and made to look better than life. The Kardashians and the Osborne’s have more in common with the Cosbies and the Waltons than they do with the person in the street, right? Wrong. When you are subjecting yourself to the kind of 24/7 media scrutiny that these folk do, eventually, inevitably, everything becomes public knowledge, and sometimes it amounts to considerably more embarrassment than the rest of us are prepared to reveal. These people are, dare we say it, brave, and their activities, try to contain your laughter, emancipatory.
The internet and all forms of mass produced, affordable-for-all social media have democratised spontaneous outbursts of joy, feelings and emotions. They have also made us a “warts and all” society, allowing us, from time to time, to safely step out from behind our defences.
Perhaps the most famous of all “drop what you’re doing and just be human again” moment occurred during the First World War; the game of football that was alleged to have taken place between German and British soldiers on Boxing Day at the end of 1914, when trench warfare was at its bleakest.
A moment of levity can help people find a common goal in moments of adversity and personal or social conflict.
In the 1920’s James Joyce was writing Ulysses, creating Harold Bloom, a man he wanted you to be able to “walk around”, and know everything about. The first truly 3 dimensional media personality, perhaps?
At the same time JP Donleavy, in his book the Gingerman, talked about people trapped inside “their castles of fear”, an imprisonment of the self.
Both were at pains to portray the human condition in as much detail as possible. The more we see, the less we have to fear, they thought.
The truth that social media has taught us is that in our lighter moments, we may be more simple, in a good way, than they could ever have thought.