People in search of the perfect selfie have tumbled down stairs at the Taj Mahal and off bridges in Russia; they have cozied up to rattlesnakes, to loaded guns, to grenades. They have tried to hang off nine-story buildings with one arm; they’ve climbed on top of train cars and suffered a 27,000-volt shock. They have lost control of prop planes and they have slammed head-on into recycling trucks. The message is clear enough: Our selfie compulsion is killing us. Or, as a street artist has been announcing all over the walls and sidewalks of downtown New York: “Guns Don’t Kill People . . . Selfies Do.”
The killer-selfie thesis relies on some rather shaky statistical reasoning. But that doesn’t mean it’s a hoax or the result of mere sloppy thinking; the phenomenon didn’t go viral by accident. Statistical significance does not have a monopoly on significance. The negligible rate of men, for example, who kill their fathers and marry their mothers doesn’t make the story of Oedipus any less meaningful. On the contrary, in our story-making imaginations, it is precisely the outlying cases that often strike us as most revealing of the general condition. As 2015 closes, we seem to recognize something important about ourselves in tales like the one about the pleasant young man who, on a sunny day last May, set out to capture his likeness and ended up falling into a volcano.
Death-by-selfie is a new story with roots in an old one. We often dismiss selfie takers, especially young ones, as “narcissists,” but it’s rarely mentioned that the classical myth of Narcissus isn’t just about a boy who becomes obsessed with his own image, it’s about a boy who dies as a result of this obsession. It’s not a coincidence that in today’s crowd-sourced lore, the story has now taken a turn toward premature death. For some reason, when people imagine the narcissistic gaze, they see extinction.