There’s nothing uncool about the ALS ice bucket challenge

Who cares if self-promotion is one of the side-effects?

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Very rarely these days is it possible to go away on holiday and come back to a land you don’t recognise. You’d need to go to the North Pole or Christmas Island, or to have lost all your means of communication, to return to these shores not knowing what’s gone on in the interim.

I am old enough to remember the days when, on coming back from holiday, I’d have a pile of newspapers waiting for me so I could catch up on important matters, like the football results or what’s been happening  on Coronation Street. Now, of course, we are so plugged in – literally – when we’re away that we don’t miss a thing.

This time it’s different. I flew away a couple of weeks ago and an ice bucket was a means of chilling a bottle of rosé, and came back to find it a symbol of philanthropy as ubiquitous as the red ribbon or the red nose. I, in common with most of the world’s population, had never heard of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a few weeks ago, but now, thanks to a cleverly orchestrated social-media campaign, we are aware of this progressive neurodegenerative disease, even if we’re not exactly certain of its causes and its effects, and we are not entirely sure how we are helping the cause by tipping a bucket of ice over our heads.

I went on holiday and newsreaders just read the news. Now they’re posting little videos of themselves showing what sports they are, and how caring they are, by this act of self-inundation. In the post-ice-bucket-challenge world I’ve come back to, it’s almost impossible to go to an event – the GQ awards this week being the latest example – that’s not punctuated by the random tipping of a pail of cold water. Just to show, you understand, how we don’t take ourselves seriously, while at the same time being serious about, you know, a really serious disease.

In some ways, the ice-bucket challenge is the perfect expression of the modern world. It is a vivid example of society’s democratisation inspired by the digital age. There, side by side, are Joe Schmoe and Justin Timberlake both being subjected to the same ordeal, both being transmitted by the same medium, both – in theory – able to reach the same number of people, both doing their bit to make the world a better place. It is a fabulous illustration of how, thanks to the power of a medium that is completely unmediated, everyone is a film star, everyone is a celebrity, and, of course, everyone is a philanthropist (with a little splash of self-deprecation thrown in).

It’s the cult of the individual writ large. Anyone with a mobile phone and an opinion regards themselves as a journalist these days, and anyone with a bucket of ice and a camera phone is a film star. So what to make of it? I returned to Britain as a person who’s naturally inclined to be sceptical and scornful of this phenomenon. And you know what? I think it’s bloody brilliant, harmless, occasionally amusing, but with a proper purpose. Who cares if self-promotion is one of the side-effects? Pour cold water on it if you dare.

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