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Selfiecides: the Gladiators of the Digital Age?

Photo Source Richard Ricciardi | CC BY 2.0

The annual Darwin Awards are bestowed ironically, having originated in Usenet newsgroup discussions in the mid-1980s.

The Awards are earmarked for individuals who contribute, supposedly, to human evolution by eliminating themselves from the human gene pool as a result of their own actions, culminating in the actor’s death, or if they survive, ensuing in their inability to reproduce.

Until recently most contenders for the Darwin Award were wackos, out-of-control or heedless individuals who embarked on a course of action which, once started, made death virtually inevitable.

Hence, the 2018 winners include a Berlin man who was quarrelling with his soon-to-be-ex as they walked along the banks of an icy river. He pushed her into it, and to make certain she drowned, he jumped in to shove her head underwater. She could swim, but he could not. So she survived while he suffered a cardiac arrest and was barely alive when pulled out of the freezing water by rescuers—the resulting brain-damage caused by oxygen starvation led to his death a short time later.

The 2016 winners included a recent college-graduate visiting Yellowstone National Park, who ignored several posted warning signs in order to go off-limits so he could soak himself in what he assumed would be a therapeutic hot spring. He alas slipped and fell into the highly acidic boiling water of one of many such Yellowstone springs. Nothing was left of him after his boiling acid bath except for his wallet and slippers when a search party discovered these two floating objects the next day.

One gets the drift!

Potential nominees for recent Darwin Awards are however drawn from a somewhat different constituency.

They tend to be international tourists (many of them fairly wealthy and well-educated), who can afford to travel abroad to renowned tourist spots or remote locations in search of “scenic wonders”.

In such places there usually are no warning signs—why should there be, when it is reasonable to assume that, say, dangling from the narrow ledge of a high tower to take a selfie is bound to be fraught with risk?

Individuals who pay “the ultimate price” in search of this sublime selfie (sometimes called a “killfie” by the cynically-minded) can alas only be regarded as selfiecides.

Selfiecides take their photos from precarious vantage-points such as cliff edges or precipitous waterfalls, or by posing next to a lethally uncooperative wild animal, etc.

Their selfies are thus something of a recension of the porno “money shot”.

Their object is the quest for an intense digital-visual gratification—unlike the Berlin river-plunger, or the Yellowstone would-be therapeutic bather.

The irony is that the killfie “money shot” is, a lot of the time, still on the camera recovered next to the dead body, serving as a final testament to the image’s deadly provenance.

I have to say I somehow have a tad more sympathy for the often less-educated drunk, not in search of any kind of selfiecide “money shot”, who ignores warning signs and jumps into a river full of crocs, but who might after all be able to poke out the eyes of the croc and live to tell a valiant and no doubt embellished tale in the admittedly rare event of survival.

As I was taught when starting to climb mountains in my teenage years, where any fear of heights had to be addressed from the beginning—nearly everyone dies when they fall 30 feet or more if unsecured by a rope.

So no need to worry if you fall beyond this 30-foot benchmark! A 30-foot unsecured fall will, all else being equal, have the same outcome as a 300-foot or 3000-foot fall. C’est la vie (or c’est la mort).

So why do our selfiecides contending for a Darwin Award take seemingly senseless risks in search of their “money shots”?

The only plausible answer is that most selfie-takers taking such risks are tourists from global metropolitan areas, where crossing a busy street in the rush hour, or doing wheelies on your bicycle or performing skateboard tricks, are probably the most hazardous or adventuresome things someone can do legally in this urban setting.

Such individuals are therefore innocent of the risks involved when perching on a wall a few inches wide with a 50-foot drop for a gorgeous sunset shot; let alone doing the same on a 1000-foot drop right on the edge of a cliff with unpredictable wind gusts; or wading into a stream on the rim of a waterfall for a breathtaking shot of the mighty cascade two-feet in front of you (“the water here looks fast, but hey it’s only one-foot deep!”); or thinking that taking a selfie in the wild alongside an injured bear in a filthy mood, the ursine only being 5-6 times your bodyweight, is somehow a marvellous idea. (For the doubters reading this article, these incidents actually took place.)

This intuition—that “the eye often does not see what the mind does not know“ (to quote a medical practitioner/researcher mentioned in the article discussed below)– has been confirmed by the first detailed study of selfiecide mortality.

According to The Washington Post, which reported on a study conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences that analyzed news reports of 259 selfie-related deaths from October 2011 to November 2017, researchers “found the leading cause to be drowning, followed by incidents involving transportation — for example, taking a selfie in front of an oncoming train — and falling from heights. Other causes of selfie-related deaths include animals, firearms and electrocution”.

The study also found that more than 85%  of the victims were between the ages of 10 and 30. It said that India had the highest number of selfie deaths by country, and that multiple reports of selfie deaths have also come from Russia, the US and Pakistan.

The Post quoted Mohit Jain, an orthopaedic surgeon who was not involved in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences study, but who has done research into selfie deaths– “Sometimes eyes don’t see if your mind doesn’t know,” Jain told The Post.

Jain’s research found that 75 people had died attempting to take selfies from 2014 to mid-2016.

This body of research only focused on selfiecides reported in the news, so the actual number of selfiecides could be much higher.

It is easy to excoriate “the culture of narcissism” (or something like it) for contributing to the phenomenon of the inveterate and sometimes heedless selfie-taker.

However, this line of analysis has its limits.

Habitual or chronic takers of selfies are basically data collectors for whom every biographical detail embodied in this or that image has to be captured and filed away, or else rendered accessible via social media.

The selfie has become a popular cultural form, especially for those under 30, because an image-based “attention economy” is now deeply entrenched in our digital mediascape.

As long as this particular “attention economy” exists, it will continue to be the case that “I selfie, therefore I am”, or in the correlative past-tense form instanced by the terminal selfie-taker, “I selfied/killfied, therefore I was”.

Moreover, it could perhaps be hypothesized that the gladiators of the Roman Empire took risks  similar to our selfiecides from an actuarial standpoint?

In which case: our selfiecides may have initiated the age of the digital gladiator. Your photo represents a risky encounter with the cyber beast for that handsome prize on your digital archive, but there are times when you pay the ultimate price.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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