Who Invented the Ice Bucket Challenge? A Slate Investigation.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 22 2014 7:22 PM

Who Invented the Ice Bucket Challenge?

A search for the fundraising phenomenon’s cold, soaked patient zero.

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But Know Your Meme, as meme-knowledgable as it may be, didn’t get this meme quite right. Where did the buckets come from, Know Your Meme? I demand buckets!

A different Columbus Dispatch story, this one published in early May, offers an alternate explanation. “The Cold Water Challenge has mostly taken off in Christian communities,” writes Susannah Elliott. “The Facebook page 24 Hour Water Challenge, which started in March and may have initiated the fad, asks participants to take on the challenge for a mission project that focuses on clean water, hospitals and housing in Liberia.”

In addition to highlighting the fad’s potential faith-based origins, Elliott’s story noted a number of potential hazards: “too-cold water can give participants hypothermia; one challenger in Michigan broke his neck after jumping into a shallow lake.” Several other local news stories from April and May warned of potential safety risks—that Minnesota teens should stop trying to jump into a ship canal, and that five young Nebraskans could’ve been zapped by lightning when they leaped into a lake.

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As a consequence, Elliott reported in the Columbus Dispatch, “Some Cold Water Challenge participants instead choose to dump a bucket of cold water on themselves.”

Go to the 24 Hour Water Challenge Facebook page, which was created on March 5, and you’ll find a whole bunch of Christians doing just that. And here’s a similarly Christian-themed YouTube video from March 4, in which “Marc and Andrea” deploy a bucket of cold water and hop on a snow-covered trampoline:

Marc and Andrea say they were challenged by someone named Jeremy Goodwin, and I’m sure Jeremy Goodwin was challenged by someone else, and so on and so forth. If you can find an earlier example of someone dumping a bucket of cold water on her head and challenging a friend to do the same, please let me know in the comments or send me an email.

Though I poured cold water on its conclusions earlier, Know Your Meme does offer one very interesting tidbit. The site notes that the ice bucket challenge closely resembles something called neknomination, (or “neck and nominate”) a drinking game supposedly invented by Brits or Australians. In said game, you chug a beer, perhaps follow that up by doing something dumb and/or dangerous, and then nominate someone else to do the same.

In a Vice piece this February, Drake Fenton noted that “in Canada, the game has been tweaked to take advantage of our seemingly endless barrage of snowy madness.” That tweak: “Neknominees must drink their beer in the snow wearing only their underwear—preferably of the skimpy and embarrassing variety.”

Those videos have been collected on a Facebook page called “24 Hour Challenge.” That page is not just a collection of people drinking beer in their underwear. You’ll also find posts about charitable endeavors, like an outdoor, snow-laden, minimal-clothing-required dodgeball game to raise money for a man suffering from Lyme disease.

So, where does that leave us? It seems plausible that the neknomination drinking game turned into the chillier 24-hour challenge. From there, fundraisers seized the opportunity to latch onto a social-media-friendly trend, the “24-hour challenge” became the “24-hour water challenge,” and buckets replaced bodies of water in the interest of safety. It’s a reasonable story, one that a poster on the Canadian 24 Hour Challenge Facebook page certainly believes. “We know where this truly originated!” someone named “Rachel TK” wrote on Aug. 19, linking to the Wikipedia entry on the ice bucket challenge.

But if I’ve learned anything from this quest, it’s that the ice bucket challenge is a slippery target. To wit, I found this video that was uploaded to YouTube in July 2013.

Did the ice bucket challenge start with a bunch of French-speaking girls, or was this a one-off, francophone outlier, something entirely independent of the current cold water phenomenon?

No matter the answer, it’s clear that the year’s biggest viral trend isn’t about any single person. Rather, it’s one of the best examples we’ve ever seen of the Internet’s amazing ability to connect people and spread ideas. A dumb drinking game is maybe, possibly, the origin of a fundraising drive that raised more than $50 million for ALS. How cool is that?

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