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People are dying in the quest for the perfect selfie

Death by selfie

Is the lust for likes on social media encouraging people to take life-threatening risks? Chris Stokel-Walker pokes his lens over the precipice

Is the lust for likes on social media encouraging people to take life-threatening risks? Chris Stokel-Walker pokes his lens over the precipice

Chris Stokel-Walker | December/January 2019

It was an ordinary day in Wolverhampton, a small city in the English Midlands, in December 2017, right up to the point that Jay Swingler’s head got stuck in the microwave. Swingler, a popular YouTuber known for his goofy behaviour, had inserted a plastic tube into his mouth, slipped a green plastic shopping-bag over his head and then cemented himself into a microwave using Polyfilla, a type of plaster normally used to fill small holes. The plaster expanded more than expected and, crucially, Swingler allowed it to set. When he tried to loosen the microwave, it wouldn’t budge. The fire department had to drill him free as paramedics stood by in case of injury.

Though the stunt went wrong, it propelled Swingler to a new level of stardom. Before posting the video, Swingler was gaining roughly 10,000 subscribers every three days; in the three days following the posting, he attracted 70,000 new subscribers. His video was viewed 850,000 times within 13 hours of going online.

Daredevil behaviour in pursuit of likes, retweets and shares does not always have such a soft landing. The number of self-inflicted injuries and fatalities in the name of attention-seeking is growing: between 2014 and 2018 more than 200 people worldwide died while taking a selfie. In October 2018, Jon James, a Canadian rapper, fell to his death while filming himself on an aeroplane wing.

Joanne Orlando, a researcher in technology and learning at Western Sydney University, blames the mechanics of social media which prize constant validation from others. Since people are more likely to comment on dynamic selfies than static ones, many are reluctant to upload anything that looks too rdinary. Algorithms on many platforms reinforce that tendency. If a particular pose or shot proves popular, then it is served up to more people. Other users, seeing its success, may try to match or outdo the stunt in order to be rewarded by that same process. Mona Kasra, a professor of digital media at the University of Virginia, recently travelled to Iceland, where locals reported a spate of tourists placing themselves in harm’s way while trying to capture breathtaking photos on the lips of volcanoes. “They’re not equipped and don’t know how to deal with that environment,” she says.

Smartphone cameras can now take pictures of near-professional quality, but they also have limitations that may encourage dangerous behaviour. Digital zooms produce blurry images, and the field of view in phone-camera lenses is often narrow. Trying to get the best shot, some people shuffle closer to precipitous edges in order to capture more of the backdrop behind them.

In October 2018, a couple died after falling off a cliff in Yosemite as they perched for a shot. That is not as unusual as it should be. Of the 200-plus deaths-by-selfie between 2014 and 2018, some two-thirds of deaths involved great heights, water or a combination of the two. An app for smartphone cameras that identifies potential hazards and flags up locations identified as dangerous by previous users is now available.

Phones are not the only devices to encourage risk-taking. The GoPro camera can be fixed onto a person’s head to allow participants in extreme sports to capture dramatic, first-person footage. Runners and cyclists use gamified fitness apps such as Strava to compete with each other and receive online “badges” as reward for accomplishments. These can prompt an individual to take a more dangerous route down a mountainside, for example, in order to reach the top of an online leader board. “We are very amenable to manipulation by reward even if it puts us in danger,” says Adam Johnson, a behavioural scientist at the University of Bath. His colleague, Lukasz Piwek, is more circumspect about causation. But a forthcoming paper written by the pair shows that cyclists who use Strava are very speedy – a fifth of users pedal at more than 22mph – and the fastest are the most likely to pay for the app.

The trend is global. Los Angeles County Sheriffs have reported a 38% increase in rescue missions since 2013 as more and more people end up in trouble while trying to capture the perfect photo or video. In 2017 British emergency services were called out to more than 3,000 incidents that had associated field notes which mentioned YouTube, nearly double the number of such calls in 2013. In an extreme case in America in the same year, Pedro Ruiz III, a young YouTuber, died when his girlfriend, Monalisa Perez, shot him at close range under the mistaken belief that a hardback book he was holding could stop a .50 calibre bullet.

India is on the front line of selfie fervour: over half of the selfie-related deaths recorded since 2014 occurred there. The country’s ministry of railways now warns people to avoid taking selfies on the tracks; and Mumbai’s police force has identified 16 hotspots in the city where selfie-takers could put themselves in danger.

Many selfie-takers are conscious of the dangers. In the early days of January 2017, Viki Odintcova, a 23-year-old Russian model, lowered herself off a beam at the top of the Cayan Tower, a 1,004-foot edifice in Dubai. Eyes closed, she leaned into thin air as she clung onto the hand of an assistant who was all that stood between her and a sharp fall into the waters below. She then opened her eyes so that her assistant could take her photo with his free hand. The photo went viral, but she deleted it from her Instagram profile after a backlash from followers who believed that it would encourage others to repeat her prank. The two videos that remain on Instagram documenting the stunt have been viewed more than 3.2m times. But Odintcova says she is no longer proud of her daring: “I was just trying to leave a trace in history.”

Some platforms have responded by age-blocking content that might encourage minors to undertake copycat stunts. YouTube quickly barred younger registered viewers from watching Swingler’s video, for example. But such measures are crude and are easily bypassed. Some platforms exist with the specific purpose of hosting material excluded by mainstream sites. One such site, LiveLeak, gets 36m hits a month.

And so the proliferation of outlandish stunts continues. Social networks keep promoting extreme content, and their users are unlikely to start favouring mundanities in sufficient numbers to divert the algorithms along a safer course. Beware the wisdom of crowds.