Death by selfie: why we want to frame ourselves in life-threatening situations
It recently emerged that the number of people who died in the past year as a result of taking selfies is in fact greater than the number of people killed in shark attacks.
iPhones don’t have teeth. Instagram doesn’t bite chunks out of your leg. Steven Spielberg didn’t make a film called
iPhones don’t have teeth. Instagram doesn’t bite chunks out of your leg. Steven Spielberg didn’t make a film calledLens. But there you go – sharks are safe compared to narcissistic photography.
Twelve people in total have allegedly died from taking selfies this past year. That’s compared to eight people killed by sharks. The latest victim is a 66-year old Japanese tourist, who last week fell down a flight of stairs in the Taj Mahal while attempting to take a picture of himself and his colleagues. Earlier this year, a Spanish man was gored to death after trying to take a selfie at an annual bull run. In May, a Russian man accidentally shot himself in the head while posing for a selfie with a loaded gun.
Now, what happened to that Japanese tourist looks to be a terrible accident. You could argue that, as the distribution of smartphone technology widens, there will inevitably be a higher probability of mishaps occurring. From the outset, it seems that this phenomenon is a separate issue from the one illustrated by the wave of people taking photos of themselves in dangerous situations.
But for those people taking pictures of themselves with bears and guns, what’s the appeal? Why are we suddenly so obsessed with taking life-threatening selfies?
Extreme selfies aren’t just pictures of dangerous things. They aren’t reportage of deadly situations. They are images where the person is framed in these situations. They are evidence – proving that the person was there in that place and time, in front of a bear or on top of a cliff. Why would we want evidence? For Likes, of course.
In his book, The Four-Dimensional Human, writer and researcher Laurence Scott talks about how social media, and the subsequent “24/7 news cycle of the self”, leads to a constant awareness of how we are being presented. One outcome of this is that we approach situations in terms of social currency – I see Big Ben and, instead of basking in its physical presence in space and time, I immediately think about it in terms of how many Likes it could garner. I do this. You probably do this, even though you may not admit it.
Taking extreme selfies could be understood as an extension of this. I see a bear in the woods and, instead of observing it, my mind immediately switches to social media mode. This distances me from the normal sense of fear I’d feel in the situation by adding, both literally and metaphorically, a glass layer between my surroundings and myself.
Something more than attention seeking
The Russian government has released a “selfie guide” following a series of selfie-related deaths. National parks in America have had to warn visitors about taking photos with bears. A number of monuments have banned selfie sticks. Even Tour de France cyclists have expressed concern over fans taking dangerous pictures of themselves in front of riders.
People become accustomed to things very quickly on the internet. Scroll through Facebook or Instagram and you’ll see a constantly updating stream of selfies. In the buyer’s market of Likes and Retweets, we need something to set us apart from the crowd. If you scroll expecting to see a picture of your sister in front of a pool or in a nightclub, but she’s in front of a herd of charging bulls instead, you’ll spend more time looking at it – right?
You could argue that this is nothing more than good ol’ fashioned attention seeking, but look deeper and you’ll see something more complex. These extreme selfies are an arms race of images competing for shock value, but they are also an outcome of a culture that promotes viewing the world in terms of social media impact.
Images: Coconut chanel, Peter Verhoog, Blog.On