Death by Selfie
People are literally dying to take photos of themselves.
Posted May 24, 2015
People are dying tryng to take a selfie. This weekend a 21-year-old man died in Bali when he fell off a cliff while trying to take a photo of himself. In Moscow, a 21-year-old woman died when she tried to take a selfie while holding a gun to her head. The gun went off. Alas, these stories are not unusal. A quick search for "death by selfie" reveals similarly sad stories. A 17-year-old Russian girl was electrocuted while taking a selfie on a bridge. A 21-year-old man in Spain climbed on top of a train to take a selfie and was electrocuted. In Portugal, a Polish family was vacationing when mom and dad fell off a cliff and died while trying to take a selfie.
In some ways, death by selfie is both patterned and predictable. Like suicide, death by selfies is not randomly distributed throughout the population. Since sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote his classic study of suicide in 1897, we have known that men are more likely to kill themselves than women. We now know that older white men from more rural states are the most at risk. Death by selfie is also not randomly distributed. It probably occurs more often for those for whom social media is an important factor for their sense of self. Selficide thus probably is most likely to affect younger people and is highly likely when those people imagine an opportunity to enact the self in an unusal way—like on vacation or in a physical location, like a bridge or the top of a train, that is not an everyday experience.
In order to understand the premium that some people are willing to place on a selfie, it is important to turn to another sociologist, Erving Goffman. In The Performance of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman wrote that we become ourselves by performing ourselves. Fifty years before the age of selfies, Goffman understood that there is no core self, but only a self in relationship to others and that in order to be "ourselves" we are constantly called upon to act ourselves. The problem, of course, is that we might begin to believe our front stage presentations of ourselves as "real" or, perhaps worse, become alienated and cynical from our own performances of self. On social media, we see both these things happening. We stage ourselves with selfies, and we simultaneously acknowledge this staging.
Here's a selfie of me on a cliff before a beautiful sea. But it's a selfie. Get it? I'm staging myself before this beautiful sea. Or as Goffman put it:
“(T)o the degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self and a special kind of wariness of others.”
As Goffman's 1959 classic shows, humans understood the importance of the presentation of self long before social media and selfies existed. All of social life is about presenting our vision of ourselves and trying to get our audience to believe it.
But what is more of a dramatic fail than dying by selfie? At just the moment when we are supposed to be documenting our lives as extraordinary—as better than yours because I found this gun or climbed this bridge—our life ends.
And so a new genre of selfie—the selficide—is born. It is part tragedy and all irony.