The Optics of Ice Water

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My boss likes to use a particular phrase when she talks about presenting new ideas.

She often tells me to “think about the optics.”

Optics means, among other things, the way an event or course of action is perceived by the public.

Sometimes when you’re enveloped in a project or an event, you get caught up in the details, and it’s difficult to think about the optics.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the optics of ice water.

There is nothing wrong with the ALS ice bucket challenge.

In fact, there is a lot to admire about it.

It’s a genius piece of guerrilla marketing for a fantastic cause.

Much like Susan G Komen and all the other fund-raising arms of organizations with goals of funding research to find cures for some of the world’s worst diseases, the ALS Association’s time has come.

More properly, ALS’s time has come.

Awareness is a huge part of helping to cure a disease. Cancer, being relatively common throughout the human race doesn’t have as much of an awareness issue as ALS.

The virality of the Internet makes it perfect for reaching people with information about lesser-known or misunderstood diseases like ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

With fewer sufferers than cancer, research and treatments for ALS remain difficult to conduct and find. So having thousands and thousands of people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads in online videos with the name of your disease or organization prominently displayed will create a new level of knowledge that can help fund specialized research and hopefully lead to a cure.

All of this is good. Really good.

But as Americans, we rarely pause to think for a moment about how these things are perceived in other places. Places like Africa, where 345 million people lack access to clean drinking water.

I know, I know. We are a society built on largesse.

But our generosity sometimes clouds our view of the bigger picture.

I think about this a lot though. And this ice bucket challenge really has me looking at the way I live my life out loud online.

I post a lot of pictures of grilled meats and other culinary adventures from my kitchen.

This is not as much for you as it is for me.

I wasn’t blessed with a great memory. So I often post pictures of food online so I can go back at some point and remember the things I made in certain seasons.

The ice bucket challenge got me thinking about my friends overseas who live simple lives in order to help other people simply live. They don’t eat amazing grilled foods like the stuff I post online, and when I think about what it must look like to them, I feel as though I’m not giving an accurate representation of the way I live. Moreover, I’m misrepresenting what life in the West really looks like.

I usually only grill on the weekends, and we sort of shop for those evenings when we can be a family together. Week night meals are a simpler affair with good, nutritious but often less-sexy foods.

To my friends, some of whom only get on the Internet once a week, I’m sure it looks like I eat like the President of France.

Perceptions are difficult to control, though it is somewhat easier with social media. I can create a persona that is partially me with added implications that I build in to the story of my life to get you to think a certain way about me.

Optics are the way your perceive my life. And if I stop to think about those optics, I can change things subtly to affect your perception of me.

So here I am sitting down to dinner with my kids. I have virtually given up on Facebook since the onslaught of ALS ice bucket challenge videos began.

I tell them that we won’t be participating in this. Not because I don’t believe in it, and certainly not because we don’t wish this organization much love and funding to find a cure. We definitely do.

But we won’t be participating because of the optics of it.

I helped dig a well for people who had no access to clean water. I spent no more the five or six hours working on the well outside of an orphanage that had to boil water for the children.

And still I realized from that day on how much water can mean to people. Never mind fresh clean water chilled with ice, which is a dream most of the world’s thirsty could never even comprehend.

While we are pouring a resource we seem to think we have plenty of over our heads for charity, it doesn’t really cross our minds that the rest of the world might be looking on wondering one of several different possible thoughts.

1. Wow, this is the life. Water is so plentiful they can just pour it out over their heads with their clothes on. I really want to give up my life here in ________ so I can go live in America.
2. Americans are really stupid and wasteful, I think I’ll hate them even more.
3. I’ve never tasted clean water from a tap, and I’ve never seen ice with my own eyes.

This is not to judge those who’ve participated in this. After all, you’ve helped ALS Association raise more than $40 million, which double their yearly contributions. And you’ve brought a ton of awareness to a terrible, wasting disease.

This is only to point out the optics of this viral message.

Your friends and neighbors might be impressed, but the kid in Chad or Niger with no drinking water isn’t.

But he’s probably not on Facebook you say?


But the places where mobile usage is growing the fastest are some of the thirstiest places on earth.

The big communication companies will bypass the old structure and lay fiber optic cables across the dark continent. Never mind the the lack of food and water.

Chances are some thirsty kid in Africa is watching former president George W. Bush get a bucket of ice water on his head right now.

We can take a lot for granted living here in the good, ol’ USofA. We’ve been given a lot as a nation.

And we, as a society, may wish we didn’t play such a heavy role in world affairs, but to whom much is given, much will be required.

This includes the optics of our actions.

My hope is that when the next viral marketing campaign comes across our Facebook feeds, we consider the implications and adjust accordingly to give a message with a little more solidarity and perhaps sympathy.

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