A lot of my research lately has centered around trying to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between feminisms, technology, and the media studies concept of a moral panic (see, Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts , “Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order). I typically use images as epicenters to understand these things and how they are all interlaced. So naturally, because I don’t live under a rock and basically do live on the internet, I saw this Mashable article and have also been fielding many comments, texts, tweets, and emails from friends/colleagues over the last 24~ish hours.
Mashable claims, in a hyper sensational manner, that more people have been killed by selfies this year than by sharks. Technically, and quantitatively, they’re not wrong. But culturally, and conceptually, they couldn’t be further from the actual circumstances.
The 12th selfie-related death happened recently when an elderly tourist fell down the steps at the Taj Mahal, while trying to snap a self-portrait. So, here’s what Mashable first gets wrong: This man didn’t die from a selfie. He presumably died from something along the lines of blunt force trauma from falling down stairs. But by claiming this man – and 11 other individuals – tragically died while taking selfies, Mashable perpetuates a discourse that’s culturally prominent in today’s media. And, that discourse is one of exclusion, sexism, and policing bodies/actions.
Originally (and in now different ways, still are), selfies were criticized for being narcissistic, as were the (mainly) girls and women who were taking them. It became an inherently cyclical way of thinking: women are narcissistic because they take selfies, and selfies are narcissistic because women take them. Ann Burns has a fantastic Foucauldian analysis of the selfie, in which she argues selfie criticism exists as a means to policing bodies and “teaching” what actions and images are acceptable to post to social media.
My reaction to this Mashable piece was a combination of Burns’s work and my recent work on moral panics. Media use fear to police bodies and actions. And because the general experiences of most media consumers are not the experiences being reported on, media must use certain metaphors and lines of thinking to make the story understood and resonate. In the case of this Mashable article, they use a “stock of meaning” of the shark attack, which prompts one to think of the movie Jaws, hear the iconic music, and consider devastating bloodshed. Ergo, shark –> sharks are dangerous –> compare to selfie –> selfies are dangerous.
“More people have died from selfies this year than shark attacks,” is a sensational headline. It privileges the idea that those who take selfies take unnecessary risks and put themselves in danger. Jill Walker Rettberg posted a fantastic analysis of this piece earlier, using a capitalist/tourism/global economy lens, and it is absolutely worth a read. While the Russian
government may have posted a guide to safe selfies earlier this year and tourism agencies actually encourage “daredevil selfies,” there is something oddly perverse happening now in which image-based actions are simultaneously being encouraged, policed, and criticized. There is something I don’t yet have an answer to.
While all these deaths are tragic and could have been prevented, it is also worth remembering that no amount of social media likes is worth a life. Earlier this year, my friend sent me an article that read, “Selfie Causes Colorado Plane Crash.” And I texted back – False. Stupidity Causes Colorado Plane Crash. Be smart, and use “common sense.” My critique here is one that focuses on how media discuss these issues, not on the individual people and their actions. It is upsetting that media can’t – or won’t – disentangle these concepts.
(Added: Forbes actually critiques this piece in a blistering fashion – and reveals your odds of dying from taking a selfie are actually about 1 in 4 billion)