The Values of Slacktivism: The Ice Bucket Challenge and Cynicism in Social Media

The most current slacktivism trend that is sweeping social media is the Ice Bucket Challenge. In all the conversations about this, it took me two days before someone mentioned in their post that it was for ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease. On my personal pages, I’ve not come across a lot of these posts because I started removing people a long time ago who participated in what I and many others call “slacktivism” — something that makes a person feel good, but has no actual effect on the cause they are promoting.


For instance, posting a crazy ass sexually charged comment with no context in support of breast cancer “awareness” or changing your profile photo to that of a cartoon character to show support for children that live in abusive situations. It’s an effort to do these things, sure, but it’s minimal and frankly, having Scooby-Doo for your avatar does nothing in the long run for the child that is having cigarettes burned into her flesh.

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When something like this invades pop culture, there’s always a debate about whether the viral nature of the stunt outweighs any benefits to the actual cause. Currently, the ALS Foundation states that since the Ice Bucket Challenge campaign, they have raised $15.6 million, which is nearly nine times more than what they raised during June, July and August of 2013. Other ALS charities have stated that their donations have increased substantially by these ice bucket challenges, and at the end of the day, isn’t that the goal?

Why do we even care what someone posts on Facebook if, when all is said and done, someone is spurred to donate money to a good cause? Why do I remove someone when I see yet another acquaintance post “why is no one around whenever I’m horny?”

This image TOTALLY screams the breast cancer awareness mission behind the stunt.
This image TOTALLY screams breast cancer awareness

Well, because there’s a difference between actual donations or awareness and being sucked up into a social media popularity contest.

Breast Cancer awareness is the most prevalent “cause” taken up by slacktivists. The above mentioned quote comes from the most recent breast cancer chainmail that was sent around for 2014. Most of these messages stem from that one time when women posted a color (the color of their bras! Gasp! Soooo risque!) on Facebook statuses worldwide in an effort to flummox men. Oh yeah, and of course, raise awareness for breast cancer. When the trend was picked up by news outlets, it ensured that each year, women will be messaged by their Facebook “friends” in a gotcha moment: You liked the chain mail status! If you truly care about people and aren’t a horrible person who would like to watch the little tiny babies of Africa starve, then of COURSE you’ll play this simple, stupid, and obtuse game — as long as you don’t tell anyone! Remember: It’s for breast cancer awareness! Just make sure that you share that. Even more insulting, the emails usually include the title of “20XX Breast Cancer Game.”

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Sorry! I fell for this too! But you still gotta do it otherwise you're a shitty person!
Sorry! I fell for this too! But you still gotta do it otherwise you’re a shitty person!

That’s right — breast cancer has been so successfully marketed that most people don’t see breast cancer as a fight; rather, they see raising awareness as a game. However, survivors and victims don’t. Lisa Bonchek Adams, a woman who has been fighting breast cancer for years, has written two posts that summarize my feelings of frustration at slacktivism that I am unable to eloquently articulate.

Education underlies awareness. To even call something a game and honestly believe it’s doing anything to help any aspect of this disease is delusional.

And why would awareness be correlated with something being done secretly?

I think that those of us who have had breast cancer have an obligation to speak out if we disagree with these posts. People look to us to see how we react. If we not only read these updates but share them, it does constitute endorsement. It says we agree. It says it’s okay to think of breast cancer awareness this way.

Today, Forbes called out detractors of the Ice Bucket Challenge, saying that the objections were “catty” and people raising objections “should know better.” The author ends by saying that we should just be happy with the awareness being raised, and how great it is that the ALS foundation is getting money. Many other stories have been published today with this same point. If we talk about the #icebucketchallenge in any negative manner, we’re killjoys. We’re selfish. We’re missing the point. However, I’m NOT missing the point. I agree wholeheartedly that if there is a direct correlation between the stunt and awareness, then it’s not all bad. To say that I’m wrong for agreeing with Will Oremus by joining the #noicebucketchallenge, or that my “heart is cold” is arrogance.

Furthermore, I think we all know remember what happens when we jump on memes without doing research first.


Oremus first shows that the original challenge had nothing to do with ALS, but rather a standing dare between a group of pro athletes. That’s right. A group of people who make massive amounts of money were told to dump ice on their heads or donate $100 to a charity of their choice. In viewing the videos, the charity mention seems an afterthought — almost as though the golfers simply wanted to do something stupid but have a reason for it (AVOCADO: I’m the better half!!!!)

Those participating on social media also neglect the charity. The generally conceded “rules” stipulate that a person can donate $100 to the now-specified ALS Foundation OR they can dump ice on their heads. Over the past weekend, as people have been calling this out, there’s been a movement that if you dump ice, you should go ahead and donate $10 to ALS research. The ice-dumping knocks $90 off the donations. Personally, I don’t care if these dumpers actually did donate. What they DIDN’T do is make me feel like they cared about my chronic illness. They didn’t make me feel like they cared about those with ALS. Or breast cancer. Or cystic fibrosis. Or mental illness. Most of the time, they didn’t even talk about what ALS does to a person or family.


The dollar amount doesn’t matter here. What DOES matter is that we’ve replaced the sensation of doing something charitable with the feeling of being validated. While not everyone can afford a donation large enough to have a building named after them, it doesn’t change the fact that charitable giving seems to have become trendy. For the longest time, charity and donations were handled quietly by lower socioeconomic classes. It involved simply donating at a church or to a table outside a store. Maybe you mailed a few checks each year to your favorite causes. A couple times out of the year you volunteered at the local soup kitchen because financially you couldn’t give funds but you could give time. Maybe you donated groceries. Maybe you filled out a tennis shoe with your name on it for a dollar at the gas station.

What you didn’t do, however, is post about it on Facebook for likes, or record yourself serving the homeless for favorites, or tweet #YOLO PACKING THESE COATS FOR KIDS simply for retweets.

I agree with the #noicebucketchallenge:

Do not fetch a bucket, fill it with ice, or dump it on your head.

Do not film yourself or post anything on social media.

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.

How simple is that? Sure it’s not as awesome as getting 47 likes on my status (i like it on the filing cabinet!), it’s not as titillating as wearing a counterfeit bracelet that says “I <3 Boobies” that costs $3.99, none of which goes to charity, and it’s certainly not a mindless act I’ll forget about before I move on to the next viral craze.


I guess I like my charitable giving the way I like my head. Instead of being soaked by ice water, flashy and obtrusive, I prefer it dry, restrained and non-invasive. If that makes me cold-hearted then so be it.


If you don’t know about ALS and the life that its victims lead, please look into it. The disease is ultimately fatal. If you’re moved and would like to donate, please consider the good work being done by the ALS foundation. If ALS isn’t your thing, may I recommend a donation to the National MS Society


Al Miller
Resident nerd, glitter goth, and reluctant adult, Al has been writing about the things that make her heart sing for over a decade. She also handles the social media management for The Flounce. Need to have some questions answered or maybe discuss some PR for your upcoming indie game or geek culture project? Want to see if you're soulmates and discuss pizza toppings? Questions about pitching or contributing? email at No dick pics, please.
  • Firinn Asch

    Yep. Yesterday my boo and I were going for a walk when a couple, in full makeup, hair, and “cute” workout clothes stopped us and asked us to film them doing the ice bucket challenge. I really didn’t know how to react, and I REALLY didn’t want to film them. Everywhere in my neighborhood, I see people doing it, even half the staff outside a restaurant on my block. I wonder how many of these people are actually donating to the cause… I know the ice bucket challenge has raised a wonderful amount of funds and attention, but watching a family friend slowly deteriorate over the past few years from ALS, i’m just not sure how to feel about the challenge. It’s great marketing, sure, but at the same time, something just doesn’t feel right about it.

    • botenana

      That’s how I feel about the breast cancer stuff. A woman who loved me like her daughter had breast cancer, and every time i see it trivialized into some sexy thing or a game or a trend, it feels like it minimizes her struggle, that she really didn’t go through hell; that her masectomy wasn’t something major – it was just an afterthought.

      When what I have gets trivialized in the same manner, I get so upset because it does the same thing to me. I feel marginalized. I feel like any sort of suffering I go through isn’t real – it’s obviously imagined because what i have isn’t a big deal – after all, they make t-shirts about it and use sexy catchphrases about it.

      • Firinn Asch

        Have you seen “pink ribbons?” (I feel like you have.) Great documentary about just that – you know, the race for the cures being sponsored by companies whose products contain cancer-causing agents, making cancer “cute,” and, the most harrowing thing I got out of the film: the idea of the “fight against” it made a lot of the women interviewed feel that, if they had only TRIED HARDER, their family/they themselves could have BEAT CANCER. That’s really frightening to me, I mean these women with stage four cancer being encouraged by do-gooders to FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT! Like if they’d REALLY WANTED TO, they could have beaten cancer. but they’re just quitters.

  • Lex_Discipulus

    I have to disagree. With a disease that isnt well known (like ALS) the fact that these celebrities and other influential people are doing something like this makes a big difference.

    If Charlie Sheen, Brittney Spears, or any of the many other celebs didnt make a video that is kind of funny and discussed how they were giving money to ALS charities do you think people would have found out about it?

    If they just donated quietly who would have picked up on it?

    This over the top action compelled people to click on the video. And while watching something the average person found funny they also found out about a disease that they didnt know existed. That is the point of “awareness.”

    So few people donated to ALS charities because they didnt know what it was. Clearly now that people do they are donating. Those are real dollars that are making a real difference.

    Yes “raising awareness” can be “laughed at” or treated as a lazy way to help, but when it comes to things people dont know much about (like ALS) it is it vital.

    • Jen Pink

      The ALS brings in about $20 million a year anyway. This windfall helps with research, but none of it goes to local chapters or folks living with ALS.

      • Lex_Discipulus

        But even research is so important! Without it one could never find a treatment or cure for any disease.

        We didnt get the measles vaccines by giving money to people with measles. We got it by giving money towards research to create a vaccine.

        15.6 million is no joke or chump change. That is a large amount that can make a huge difference for research. And that is just within 3 months!

        • Jen Pink

          I’m not knocking the end, I’m knocking the means.

    • botenana

      I guess my fear is how about seven – five years ago MS was the sexy disease du jour – everyone donated, was talking about it, celebrities did stunts, 5K’s were done. Then, all of a sudden, people backed off and instead started donating to breast cancer during it’s marketing craze I have been told by people who used to donate to MS or breast cancer that it’s now “Too popular” and they’d rather donate money where it would do good. I’ve been asked to perform in fundraising benefits that get cancelled because the disease gets too much traction or public knowledge. People are fickle.

      I don’t discount one time donations.I also think that any funds donated to anything are good things.

      My disgust comes from the fact that the majority of these people doing these stunts – not the celebrities whose PR people help them hit talking points – are average joes and janes who dump a bucket of ice on their head and then walk away – patting themselves on the back for supposedly doing something charitable when they didn’t. They just get public accolades. When you ask then what charity did they ultimately donate to, they disclose that they didn’t – the ice bucket was a way to get out of donating – “but man, think of all those people I helped by doing this!”

      Yes, donations are up – which is HUGE. Instead of about 20 million for the year, the ALS foundation will end up with about 40 million – and again, this is awesome.

      But those donations aren’t from people who are slacktavists. It’s from people who actually donate.

  • Jen Pink

    Having worked in the non-profit sector, my issue is this: don’t donate to causes you don’t understand. These videos and silly “share a sexy status” gimmicks, for me, seem to cheapen the personally held value of philanthropic giving. And yes, awareness is important, education is the key to awareness… and how many people are actually learning something about ALS? Lastly, one time donors are important, but in development, you really want to cultivate more legitimately invested/educated long-term givers. That’s the only thing that makes sustainability a realistic goal for any charity.

    • Lex_Discipulus

      I think a lot of people are learning about ALS. Every day I listen to the radio on the drive to work (not like news radio, basic music radio) and I heard about this on the radio. They also provided a handful of facts about what ALS is and that it has no cure.

      Even if no one learns ANYTHING does it really matter? At the end of the day those organizations need money. That is the bottom line. Does it matter if the teen is giving 10 bucks bc he poured ice water over his head as a stunt or because he sat there and researched it?

      Yes ideally you would have educated and personally invested donors, but you cant dismiss people who give a one time donation. That is unfair and places little value on the donation that person gave, when we both know those little one time donations do add up and can help a lot.

      • Jen Pink

        I’m not dismissing one-time donors, I’m looking at it with an eagle-eye lens. It sets a dangerous precedent for people to “give

    • Firinn Asch

      Yeah I have to say, reading “I like it on the table” didn’t teach how me to check for lumps

    • Blahblee

      I like to think the people who work for ALS organizations are facepalming at this, but are also happy to take money from stupid people anyway and now have a new window to develop and push long-term interest/donations based on social media approaches? That may be way too positive. I guess the cynic would say social media will ruin any good effort. .

  • Kat Pao

    When George W. Bush is doing it, you know is legit… *rolls eyes*

  • Jen Pink
  • Kristin

    I have two friends with ALS and I get nauseous every time one of these video pops up in my FB feed. Honestly, I haven’t watched enough to tell you if they are even mentioning ALS, because all can think of is how their smiling face and carnival atmosphere trivializes what is happening in my two friend’s lives. If people want raise awareness and donations why not film themselves doing something that is actually related to how bad ALS is? Of course then it wouldn’t be fun. It would horrifying and we can’t have that. Everyone must feel good all the time.

    I also feel that the way it is done, to “call someone out”, makes it even more distasteful. Like the bully on the playground. My flight or fight takes over and I am left wondering what I am supposed to get out of it.

    I have been called all sorts of names from heartless to disgusting swear words. And yet in my mind, I picture my sweet friend Jen locked in her body. Unable to communicate without the eye gaze technology or breath on her own. She is withering away.

    I see people laughing and throwing water on themselves saying it is for people like her and I wonder, why their act of “charity” is so disconnected from her real life.

    If my heart is aching from this how can I actually be “heartless”.

    Why does it feel that I am the only one feeling this way. Maybe there is something from with me.

    Anyway thank you for your insightful words.

  • MachoMuffn

    “The dollar amount doesn’t matter here”. Well, you can continue to debate deontological ethics, the rest of american society will raise money to save life’s. #consequencialismforthewin