When Wikipedia dedicates an entire page to selfie-related injuries and deaths, you know we have a cultural phenomenon—or even an epidemic—on our hands. Lola Akinmade Åkerström explores the dangers of abandoning our instincts in search of instant gratification.
By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late.
On a short and rather packed trip to the Faroe Islands, I was running late for a dinner with local hosts. My stressful schedule meant shaving at least 45 minutes off the time I’d planned on exploring the village of Gásadalur and its iconic Múlafossur waterfall, which plunges into the raging North Atlantic against a pre-historic looking backdrop.
Rushing from my rental car in haste, I forgot to change into hiking boots, and dashed off in the direction of the booming sound of the falls, my camera slung diagonally across my chest.
Trying to find the perfect composition with a singular goal in mind, I kept moving closer to the edge until I slipped and fell, heading towards almost guaranteed sudden death. This would have meant plummeting into the freezing ocean below. Quickly catching my fall before I slid any further, I was brutally jolted back to where I was.
That was when I noticed lush green moss coated with droplets from the waterfall’s spray, the lack of traction on the soles of my shoes, and the uneven patchiness of the landscape around where I’d been tramping. In my rush, I had lost my observational instincts, and the Faroe Islands had immediately beaten me onto my knees. And I wasn’t even taking a selfie.
I was carrying my professional-grade camera, looking squarely at the sweeping panorama in front of me. Imagine if I’d turned my back to it, trying to move and adjust myself in frame?
In a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, US, and Indraprastha Institute of Information in Delhi, there were at least 127 reported selfie deaths in 2017. Wikipedia actively maintains a list of serious selfie-related injuries and deaths while the economics site Priceonomics is collecting data on fatalities to help map patterns … There’s no shortage of information and articles charting how death-by-selfie tops shark attacks.
Alongside on-point memes communicating every emotion, the Internet has given us the proliferation of selfies: That double-edged blessing-curse combo of documenting our lives with absolute freedom—yet perfectly curating those very same lives under perceived cultural pressure.
It’s not enough to revel in the deep satisfaction of accomplishment and pushing through challenges—that feat must now also be instantly communicated for all to see.
Couple this with a generation that values experiences over material things, and our most adventurous escapades become new markers of experiential wealth and status symbols. Even NASA now has an app that allows you to launch your selfies into outer space.
Taking a beautifully composed image in the age of social media feels incomplete without physically inserting yourself into the mix. Nowadays, it almost seems foolish to complete that arduous trek, cave dive, zipline, bungee-jump, and skydive without capturing yourself in action. It’s not enough to revel in the deep satisfaction of accomplishment and pushing through challenges—that feat must now also be instantly communicated for all to see.
The Oxford Dictionary describes a selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media,” yet this description already feels sorely dated.
In less than two years, the notion of a traditional selfie has evolved. No longer are selfie sticks and that spontaneous hand-over-head gesture enough to commemorate the moment. Carefully crafted selfies complete with tripods and remote triggers—even drones—are the new standard by which all selfies are judged.
And while this has all led to more creativity—for better or worse—in the world of adventure travel, what I fear is the gradual replacement of our instincts. It pulls us from the multi-layered task of observation to the singular task of framing. And this is usually done in surroundings that are often completely new for us—a dangerous occupation, by any stretch of the imagination.
What we are collectively risking and chipping away at for selfies are our natural instincts—our very key to survival.
Increasing our contextual awareness and reducing distractions naturally make us less accident-prone. And with a transient social media landscape that isn’t going to wait for you to post your selfie, the undue pressure to quickly craft and create continues to exacerbate this cultural phenomenon of ‘doing it for the ‘gram’.
We’ve all made dumb calls at some point during our travels—and certainly no-one is above human error—but with every change comes a loss of something else . To keep up with the transitory nature of social media means fast is valued over slow, and instinct is pushed aside for technique. In a highly-curated world, what happens when all is stripped from us, and we are left with just the elements and our wits?
What we are collectively risking and chipping away at for selfies are our natural instincts—our very key to survival should that smartphone drop from our hands and plummet to its own death.
My photograph of Múlafossur has now been published several times, but every time I look at that image, it reminds me to never lose my instincts in a world swept up in instant gratification—a world which is equally quick to move on after your selfie death.