You've heard about it before: someone perches on the edge of a rooftop, or a waterfall, or a granite outcropping, to take a vertiginous photo of the drop off, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of feet below. Or reclines on a railway line to take a quick selfie as a locomotive looms in the background. Or does one thing or another that is exceptionally dangerous in order to get an eye-popping image that might capture a crowd on Instagram. . .and, sometimes, perishes in the act, as recently happened with a husband-and-wife team of travel bloggers in Yosemite National Park.
As I say, there's nothing new about this, and there are plenty of articles scattered all over the Internet detailing the phenomenon, often containing academic commentary on the meaning of it all, as does this article in Vice from 2017. So, given the familiarity of what might be called "Fatal Selfie Syndrome," and, more importantly, the fact that your students are likely to be part of the audience to which such photos are directed, this is a popular cultural topic that calls for semiotic analysis.
Let's start with the basics. The fundamental goal behind dangerous Instagram photos (or YouTube videos, etc.) is to get attention. While the most daring of the bunch also tend to be thrill seekers, thrill seeking is not the primary motivation for the simple reason that the chosen poses are designed for publicity, not for a privately enjoyed experience. But this elementary explanation then raises the question of what all this attention getting signifies.
Here we can go back to the early days of the Net. The advent of the personal web log and/or web page in the 1990s signified the emergence of a democratizing challenge to the hierarchical structures of traditional mass media, offering a way for ordinary people to make themselves seen and heard. MySpace—a kind of pre-packaged personal web site with audio and images—took the process a step further, widening the breach in the wall (in Pink Floyd's sense of the word) of mass cultural anonymity, while opening up new opportunities for commercial self-promotion.
The Instagram daredevils – and increased competitive stakes – are a consequence of what happens when democratic opportunity collides with a mass scramble for individual distinction. With so many people publicizing themselves on social media, it becomes harder and harder to get anyone to notice. This is especially problematic for those who exploit the Internet as a source of personal income, seeking to attract advertising dollars by attracting large numbers of views. So much money is at stake now that a sort of arms race of ever-more-daring stunts has ensued, effectively creating a new Internet hierarchy of online Evel Knievels contending with each other to make the cut.
The semiotic upshot of all this is that social media are not merely addictive, they are expressions (and extensions) of a hypercapitalistic society so taken up with monetizing every corner of human existence that personal experience itself is now for sale—in fact, one might say that personal experience is being sought for the sake of a sale.
Behind the scenes of this dramatic interplay between risk-entrepreneurs and their followers is the advertising that pays for it all. James Twitchell has called America an "advertising culture" (or "adcult"), and the Instagram economy can be said to signify an adcult in overdrive, careening through a consumer marketplace so splintered into niches and sub-niches that those with goods and services to sell are ever on the lookout for new ways of reaching anyone who is likely to buy their stuff. So if you can survive your latest, rather literal, peek into the abyss and get it up onto the Net, you may be able—thanks to all those advertisers who want to reach the kind of people who want to see you do it— to shudder all the way to the bank.