Putting the Chill on Hashtag Activism

Unless you’ve recently been on an expedition to Outer Mongolia, you already know all about ice buckets and ALS. You may have already dunked yourself and your loved ones—and sent in a check!

There’s no question that this phenomenon has raised awareness and money for a good cause. Approximately 30,000 people die each year from ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is often called Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Not long ago, I watched a friend wither and die from the disease. It was awful. I subsequently contributed to the ALS Association and participated in an ALS walk.

But I will not be accepting an ice bucket challenge now or in the future.

Hashtag activism has a valid place in today’s world. It’s the new normal for raising awareness and motivating people to act or donate. But it shouldn’t substitute genuine caring and actual cash contributions for a narcissistic iPhone moment. Posting or reposting words and pictures on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t change anything.

For me, things hit rock bottom when a couple of friends stated that sending in a check or donating time wasn’t the point of the ALS challenge. Simply posting a video was their good deed. Then a friend’s 12-year-old grandson took the challenge, posted a picture on Instagram and boasted about it. He had no idea that a contribution was supposed to take place!

Some might say that the whole point of social media is to spread the word, and getting people to donate to a good cause is secondary. But do we really want organizations to become circus chimps for gimmicks and outlandish stunts? Do we want charity to hinge on the idea that he who introduces the coolest or most outrageous promotion garners the biggest contributions— whether or not this jibes with real-world needs?

Let’s face it, the ALS challenge was a brilliant social media campaign. Businesses and charities can learn from it, and perhaps they can even take their marketing efforts to a more sophisticated and successful level. But at a certain point, we’re going to have to ask whether the end always justifies the means, and whether social media slides the dial from real empathy and caring to doing something positive simply because it’s fun and trendy.

Now it’s time to step off my icebox and write a check to a deserving charity that hasn’t received much attention lately.