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Don’t do it: Why you shouldn’t take the #ALSicebucketchallenge, even for a good cause

Chicago Cubs vice president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is dunked with a bucket of water as part of the ice bucket challenge in awareness for ALS research after the game between the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field.

Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports

Those ice buckets are everywhere: From athletes like Sidney Crosby and Drew Brees, to celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake, to your random Kindergarten-bestie on Facebook. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took the plunge, dumping ice on his head then declaring "that was cold." It seems everyone, everywhere is dumping ice on their heads, recording it and uploading it to social media.

The rules for completing the #ALSicebucketchallenge are simple: After participants ice themselves, they must challenge three people to do the same – refuse, and they must donate at least $100 (U.S.) to the ALS Association, which supports research into the disease that eventually leads to muscle paralysis. The challenge does not often go unaccepted; then the ice cubes fall, people squeal, video ends.

Even U.S. President Barack Obama was challenged – though he opted out of the ice, "his contribution to this effort will be monetary," the White House told The Boston Globe.

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Obama's refusal to dump ice on his head highlights the most uncomfortable aspect of this viral storm: Anyone taking the challenge on your social feeds isn't necessarily donating money at all. The challenge is structured so that donating is actually the punishment for non-participation.

I've said this before: I have to squint very hard to see the relation between the cause, the stunt and the greater good for many social-media fundraising campaigns, from not wearing make-up for breast cancer, to not shaving for Movember and now getting ice on your head. (If you think the action is appropriately akin to the muscle paralysis of ALS, we will have words to exchange.)

For its part, the ALS Association is thrilled: "We have never seen anything like this in the history of the disease," said president and CEO Barbara Newhouse in a news release, calling the campaign an "impactful viral initiative."

There is money coming in: $5.5-million, says the foundation, since July 29, when the challenge started. Compare that to the $32,000 they say came in during the same period last year, and it's no question the ice-dumping is making a difference.

Still, like the no-make-up selfie of earlier this year, the message of #ALSicebucketchallenge has gotten muddled as it spreads across the Internet. Some have come under fire for not mentioning the cause at all (ahem, Matt Lauer) and some, like Time magazine, have questioned if it's doing anything at all for awareness. "Somehow I doubt many learned a whole lot from contextless tweets of wet celebs smiling and laughing," writes Jacob Davidson, thought he concludes with a reluctant endorsement of the trend.

What happened to being asked to donate to a cause and just doing it without making a big production of the gesture? Social media. Twitter, Vine and Facebook are packed with millions of people who want all their friends to see just how "crazy" they are.

It is troubling that the need for attention on social media might be feeding all of this altruism. There's no doubt that the #ALSicebucketchallenge has raised money, but it's worth asking why we need all the fireworks.

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