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.

Ice Bucket Challenge
Participants take part in the World Record Ice Bucket Challenge at Etihad Stadium on Aug. 22 in Melbourne, Australia. Over 700 people took part in setting the new world record.

Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

“Where does a phenomenon begin?”

That’s the question ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi seeks to answer in a long SportsCenter feature on the ice bucket challenge, which has reportedly raised more than $50 million for ALS charities in less than a month. Rinaldi says that it began “with one name”: Pete Frates. A former Boston College baseball player, Frates was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. On July 31 of this year, he challenged some friends and celebrities (including NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Ryan) to take the ice bucket challenge to “strike out ALS.” As my Slate colleague Will Oremus pointed out, various outlets have since claimed that Frates invented or inspired the challenge, with the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, and MLB.com joining ESPN in labeling Frates as the stimulus for the chilly, charitable fad.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

This origin myth, while heartwarming, just isn’t true. The real story of how the ice bucket challenge came to dominate your Facebook feed takes nothing away from Frates’ inspirational message, or the fact that his personal struggle helped draw celebrities to the cause and drive charitable contributions. But focusing on “one name” obscures another fascinating tale, one that illustrates how movements mutate and evolve as they travel across the Web.

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People have been getting wet and cold for charity for a very long time. “Polar bear plunges,” in which people willingly fling themselves into frigid bodies of water, are held all around the world, with Boston’s annual event dating back to at least 1904. There’s also a proud tradition of dumping buckets of liquid on people’s heads, with the Gatorade shower emerging as a canonical NFL celebration sometime in the mid-1980s.

So, who thought to combine charitable coldness with bucket-enabled dousing? Settle in, because this is a circuitous tale.

In his Aug. 12 Slate piece, Oremus says the challenge “came from a dare that was circulating among a group of pro athletes, including golfer Greg Norman and motorcycle racer Jeremy McGrath.” Indeed, pro golfers were pouring cold water all over themselves back in June. The Golf Channel’s Jason Sobel explains that Chris Kennedy, a golfer on a minor-league circuit in Florida, was the first, on July 14, to focus the freezing fundraiser on ALS research.

Kennedy’s challenge found its way to Pat Quinn, who like Pete Frates has been diagnosed with ALS. Quinn, who has also been credited with creating the ice bucket challenge, brought the charitable splash-fest to his Quinn for the Win Facebook page, where it then reached Frates and rocketed to social media supremacy.

The golfers, though, didn’t instigate this bucket brigade. Three weeks before Chris Kennedy poured water on himself for ALS research, a motocross racer named Jeff Northrop issued an ice bucket challenge of his own on Instagram to raise money for his nephew’s medical problems. [Update, Aug. 24, 12:45 p.m.: A version of the ice bucket challenge also spread throughout the women’s basketball community starting in mid-June. Arizona coach Niya Butts has been credited with launching the #Chillin4Charity movement, which raised money for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.]

If you search for the hashtag #icebucketchallenge on Instagram, you’ll find a huge number of examples that precede that. The earliest #icebucketchallenge I found on Instagram is this one, posted on May 29 by a user named standupguy06:

Well, that’s not exactly true. Go back still further, to Dec. 16, 2013 and July 11, 2013, and you’ll find a pair of Instagram users engaged in a different kind of ice bucket challenge.

The #icebucketchallenge hashtag, though, turns out to be a dead end. Before the bucket part got hashtag-ified, the wetness wager was commonly known as the “ice challenge.” Here’s a video from May 26 of this year that features a bit of salty language, as well as the classic “the camera wasn’t on” bit.

Again, the term “ice challenge” formerly meant something entirely different—and in this case a lot more boring. The formula: ice cubes plus arms equals giggling.

But that’s a trip down another icy cul-de-sac. The real ancestor of water-dumping often eschewed the bucket entirely. The “cold water challenge” and the “24-hour ice challenge,” both of which traveled widely across social media earlier this year, were variants on the classic polar bear plunge. In this iteration of the challenge, participants had to submerge themselves in a vat, tub, or body of freezing water. (The “24-hour” part references the requirement to complete the challenge in a day’s time.) This version was particularly popular with firefighters, with a recent article in the Columbus Dispatch pegging charitably inclined fire departments as the likely origin of this frosty frenzy.

Or maybe not. The site Know Your Meme claims the cold water challenge “began as a fundraising campaign in March of 2014, for Madi Rogers, a toddler from Grundy County, Tennessee suffering from severe juvenile diabetes.” According to a local TV station, Tennesseans raised money to buy young Madi a service dog by filming themselves jumping into freezing water and putting the videos on Facebook. Know Your Meme found one such video that dates back to March 8.

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.

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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