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The dangerous subculture of social media stunting

After a man scaling the shard with zero protective equipment recently made worldwide news, we ask whether the culture of putting yourself in danger ‘for the gram’ should be put to bed.

Early Monday morning whilst you were tucked up safely in bed, urban climber George King, 19, decided it would be a really good idea to free climb the tallest building in London. At 5:15 am King began his ascent of The Shard skyscraper, which he completed in 45 minutes with no suction cups, ropes, or protective gear.

Surprisingly, after making his descent King was not arrested by London police. Speaking to the Mail Online, he stated that climbing The Shard was a ‘godlike’ feeling. He added that he’d ‘done a lot of preparation for this’. King has since posted a video of his climb on to Instagram, his caption biting back at criticism that his actions were reckless.

King defends a trend (or ‘artform’, as those who engage in it would argue) that has been gaining traction on social media for a while now – people posting videos or selfies of themselves in dangerous situations. The trend is particularly prevalent in India, Russia, and the US, and has been turned into a lucrative profession by a select few.

However, as the number of selfie-related deaths continues to increase, many are beginning to wonder whether King and his contemporaries should face harsher repercussions for their actions in order to discourage imitation, and whether social media platforms should regulate the kinds of stunts they feature.

The lure of danger

Social media daredevil-ism began with the trend of ‘rooftopping’, which involves climbing severe heights and posting pictures taken from tall buildings, typically with ones legs dangling in open air.

As rooftopping gained traction, a new generation of Instagrammers, YouTubers, and members of other networks emerged. These creators cultivated the art of risking life and limb to produce heart-pounding photos and videos. The content became so popular that the influencers were able to monetise their content and strike brand deals. As risking your life for likes became a legitimate vocational goal, more and more daredevil channels began to spring up.

The stunts you can see performed for the internet’s benefit take many forms: posing on high cliffs or buildings; reckless activity on, in, or near trains, cars, or motorcycles; interactions with wild animals; extreme eating, and more methods of putting yourself in harms way.

It’s easy to dismiss the trend as youthful folly. But, the thing is, some of the images these people capture are undeniably breath-taking. The photos and videos on Russian model Angel Nikolau’s Instagram feed, for example, are stunning in part because of the danger.

Like Nikolau, many of these social media risk takers are skilful and well-practised. The real harm often comes when the average joe tries to imitate them.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery

study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care found that some 259 people died taking selfies between October 2011 and November 2017. Such a figure would’ve been hard to quantify, and it’s likely that the actual number is much higher.

As Psychologist and Author Tracy P. Alloway told the publication Fast Company, it’s notable that most of the figures featured in the report were not influencers, or even habitual social media users. They were people who happened to be killed whilst taking a selfie or modelling for a photo in unusual circumstances.

YouTube and other social media sites have witnessed an upsurge of dangerous ‘challenges’ since 2014, including the ‘fire challenge’ (where people literally set themselves on fire), the infamous ‘tide pod’ challenge, and more.

Other social media-driven stunts include dangerous driving or riding a bike or motorcycle; climbing on or touching power lines; posing on railroad tracks; posing with guns, grenades, or other weapons; and posing on beaches or on rocks with large waves.

A large motivating force behind the creation of such risky content is that it tends to garner predominantly positive feedback. British YouTuber Jay Swingler performed a dangerous stunt last year whereby he glued his head to the inside of a microwave oven. It took a team of paramedics to set him free. This genius was rewarded with 70,000 new subscribers over the three days after posting, and today channel boasts four and a half million devotees.

There’s something to be said for being part of an ‘edgy’ or ground-breaking subculture. The exclusive allure of this ‘near-death club’ is given an extra layer of distinction, and an aesthetic, by brands like Breach Apparel, who advertise their product with models posing on rooftops and from precarious situations.

The ‘glamorous’ element of stunting speaks to our idealising of life’s fleeting nature (and for our appreciation of that phenomenon you can blame Emily Dickenson and Shakespeare, among others). The notion of a beautiful corpse, the allure of the consumptive woman, the nerve of Indiana Jones as he’s nearly crushed by a rock; these are all part of our fascination with the thin edge between life and death, and to flirt with that boundary is impossibly romantic.

Moreover, there’s an argument that this trend appeals specifically to Gen Z’s counterculture tendencies. With the rise of the extreme right in the west, and the number of authoritarian regimes growing internationally, Gen Z concerns about a dying planet are being drowned out by a general trend of regression. What better way to rebel, and to symbolically communicate the bleakness of the future Gen Z feel they’ve been handed, than to display a reckless disregard for one’s own life.

So, the act of ‘gramming your dangerous stunts makes you look good, feel good, and increases your social media clout. When figures like George King exalt the thrill and fulfilment that can come from putting oneself in danger and surviving, it’s no wonder copycats crop up.

Monetising death

Whilst the majority of social media related deaths involve everyday people, there have been a few instances where influencers themselves have met untimely ends at the hands of their craft.

Popular rooftopper Andrey Retrovsky fell from a height in 2015, and widespread travel bloggers Vishnu and Meenakshi Moorthy were killed by an 800-foot fall in Yosemite National Park last year, just a few months after an Instagram post that questioned the wisdom of risk-taking for the gram. ‘Chasing sunsets or chasing likes?’ the post asks, positing ‘is our life just worth one photo?’ A few months later, they’d both be dead.


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CHASING SUNSETS or CHASING LIKES ??? 😛 … Sooo today on #socialmediabadasstribe we are talking about limits of #doitforthegram.😶Yeah sure it can be limitless but guys, we reaaaallly need to have boundaries(this is handy as life lessons too but we will revisit that later😉) A lot of us including yours truly is a fan of daredevilry attempts of standing at the edge of cliffs ⛰and skyscrapers🌆, but did you know that wind gusts can be FATAL??? ☠️ Is our life just worth one photo? … When we squirm at another selfie attempt gone south 😱 from a skyscraper, let’s remember to save that in our core memory 🧠 and not the memory dump 🛢(I am still on the Inside Out 🎬 train y’all 😬) Same applies when we get our knickers in a twist and hog a spot till we get the perfect shot🙄 I know I know, I am guilty as charged for all of this 🤦‍♀️ and if I didn’t have Mr. Two Goody Shoes, Vishnu 🤭 with me, I am not even sure if I would have written this post. … Let us all try to be responsible digital citizens and use our “numbers” to be transparent and honest, shall we?🤗 None of us is perfect and the more we accept it and share our flaws as much as our wins, we are one step closer to creating a sane social media without the scary brouhahas.💕✨ … Still there?👀 Woohoo, a backflip is in order, or wait maybe a pizza? 🍕 What about a unicorn ice-cream 🦄 🍦 with some Disney-approved cotton candy 🍭🍬 and pixie dust infused sprinkles 🧚‍♀️ if…..IF you could tell me the one time you were effin’ proud of being candid and real AF in social media? 😎 … PS – Not sponsored but sweatshirt is from @radearthsupply • • • #grandcanyonnps #northrim #instagramaz #visitarizona #travelarizona #shotzdelight #discovertheroad #usaroadtrip #visittheusa #outdoorsusa #exploretheusa #womenwhoexplore #iamtb #radparks #thediscoverer #gtgi #sheisnotlost #wearetravelgirls #hikemore #radgirlslife #travelreality #dreamscape @womenwhoexplore @visit_arizona @visittheusa @shotzdelight

A post shared by TravelCreatives❤️Minaxi+Vishnu (@holidaysandhappilyeverafters) on

The death of rooftopper Wu Yongning in 2017 caused particular soul-searching on the part of the Chinese media when a shocking clip of what appeared to be his final moments – his fatal attempt to scale a building in Changsha city – began circulating online. Questions were raised as to whether the platforms used to share his videos, and their viewers, were in some way responsible for his death.

A recent Beijing News investigation found that Wu had posted more than 500 videos and livestreams on prominent social network Huoshan. ‘These livestreamers make ‘close to death’ reality clips, while the platforms profit as the middlemen’, the report states.

Moreover, viewers of Wu’s channel have been accused of ‘crowdfunding his death’. Through Huoshan, livestreamers and video-makers can earn money from fans directly – virtual ‘gifts’ can be converted into cash. The social debate ran rife, with one user on Weibo stating, ‘watching him and praising him was akin to… buying a knife for someone who wanted to stab himself’.

So, not only do those who monetise their stunts on social media encourage others to imitate them, they also often end up harmed themselves. For many, the only solution to this growing problem is for social media platforms to stop monetising videos where creators put themselves in danger.

What can social media do?

As has been recognised by psychologists for many years now, social media amplifies ordinary social competition. You’re no longer competing just with people around you, but potentially with everyone the world over. What’s more, the videos that go viral are always the most extreme of the bunch, meaning that ordinary citizens could feel pressure to compete with the most extreme risk takers on the planet.

Whilst many social media platforms hold policies against the depiction of harmful activities on their sites, they typically allow exceptions if the videos are educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic in nature. As you can imagine, this leaves a lot of wiggle room for professional content creators. For example, whilst a video of someone pointing a loaded gun at someone else might be removed, a news report containing the same video would be allowed.

Many are thus calling for a blanket ban on daredevil content across social media regardless of context. But the platforms are understandably resistant to limit their users to this extent – this would cost them millions in ad revenue.

Another solution could be technology-based interventions that use a camera feed to identify when people are in danger, detecting higher elevation or proximity to an approaching vehicle, for example. A project involving one American and two Indian universities, called, ‘From Camera to Deathbed: Understanding Dangerous Selfies on Social Media,’ is currently working on such a system. Their tech uses deep learning to identify pictures that pose life-threatening situations. However, the question remains as to what a camera could actually do to save someone from falling off a building – it looks like this would be useful for, at best, warning emergency services.

It’s easy to imagine that social sites might some day use tech like this to flag photos and videos that are taken in life-threatening situations. In the meantime, risk taking for social media fame is getting more extreme, and the number of fatalities is on the rise. As the public slowly begins to understand the potential harms of social media, our best hope is that it also begins to take notice of the potential danger social media stunting can engender, and that social media platforms take their corporate social responsibility more seriously by demonetising blatantly reckless videos and photos.

We’re also crossing our fingers that young promising individuals like George King get some more down-to-earth hobbies.