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Gavin Haynes Sleepless Nights

NekNominate Is Not Darwin's Fault

A thorough look at the latest global moral panic.

by Gavin Haynes
06 February 2014, 7:00am

The anthropologist Jared Diamond says he’s seen a lot of emotions on the faces of the tribesmen he’s encountered. From the bone-dry Kalahari desert to the humid Amazon rainforest, people who cling to traditional ways of life often seem a bit weird to us. Some of them tolerate infanticide. Some of them eschew monogamy for swinging. Many of them have absolutely no opinion on tube strikes or the UK benefits system. But, Diamond says, the one thing he’s never seen etched on a single face out there in the untamed world is bravado.

All told, your average New Guinean highlander is quite comfortable showing his fear, and no one would think any less of him for it, precisely because stuff that is scary is stuff that can kill you. Diamond says that, here in the West, we've de-natured our understanding of the world, which is why we go skiing or inject ourselves with drugs we've bought off the internet and do other things that put us directly in harm's way. Primitive tribes don't do this. Without the whip hand of civilisation throwing up concepts like martyrdom or patriotism or manliness, these societies are free to take a look at their lives – and they've decided that their lives are precious.

Dying is bad. Therefore danger is uncool. So, if they had access to the average uni lad's Facebook feed, the New Guinean highlanders would probably be pretty confused about the whole NekNominate phenomenon: They'd be bemused at his choice to skateboard down a steep road into oncoming traffic while chugging a beer, or down a lager while dangling in the air from a helicopter’s landing rods. 

NekNominate, for anyone struggling to keep up with their moral panics, is a game where someone videos themselves necking a beer, then nominates someone else to do the same. Of course, this would be very dull without a twist, so the game is now being enlivened by a few people dying while trying to make their videos more interesting. The guy who drank WD40 seems to have lived. All the guys who drank while on the toilet seem to have clung on to the land of the living. But the guy who necked one before jumping in a septic tank had to be rescued after being overcome by toxic fumes. Sadly, others haven't been so lucky – last week, a 19-year-old died after jumping into a freezing river. There was also the Irish DJ found dead at his home a few days after being filmed chugging back a whole bottle of spirits.

Despite the fact that an article in the Daily Telegraph is the usual death-knell for new modes of fun, by the laws of internet virality we’re probably still only in the jump-off stage of NekNomination. Planking, to which this is a less hypnotically-dull sequel, didn’t really hit its stride until a couple of unfortunate souls had accidentally rolled off the 17th-storey window ledges. The "Harlem Shake" didn’t die until it was adopted by Comic Relief. And there are, need we be reminded, at least 12,000 different versions of the "Harlem Shake" now available on the internet for your viewing pleasure. Think of one "Harlem Shake" video. Really think about it. The futile hours of prep. The tedious camera set-up. The time-consuming transfer of files to a computer. The editing. The sequencing. The upload. The resulting three Likes and one Dislike. Now think of a hundred "Harlem Shake" videos. You’re still not even close. There are 12,000 of the things out there.

Why is this important? Well, it's hitting those big numbers that really drives moral panics onwards. In any stunt, multiply even a 0.25 percent probability that you will die by 12,000 NekNominations, and already you’ve got 30 dead kids staring right back up at you, like a celestial choir with upturned pint pots on their heads.

The call has gone out for Facebook to Ban This Filth. The focus on the booze side of things misses the point slightly, though – really, anything plus danger is dangerous. Sleep plus danger is dangerous. Drinking tea instead of lager would only pull a few out of the way of Death’s scythe. In theory, origami-and-lion-taming could be the next NekNominate. No, the real danger here is looking cool. That’s the one thing all of the victims of NekNomination had in common – the desire to impress their peers.

Contrary to what a lot of unkind people are saying, all this has very little to do with Charles Darwin. These people aren't early examples of YouTube-based natural selection. But it has less to do with Darwin and more to do with the rise and fall of civilisations. It’s the failure of a culture to protect the people it supposedly serves, rather than the failure of a particular genome. If people die from NekNoms it's because culture has let them down again. The man in Derby who opened a can of cider and filled a pint glass with it, added eggs, pissed in it, added battery oil, three live fish, and chugged the lot, was affirming himself to a culture that has turned cancerous, in the same way that culture let down the Easter Islanders who chopped down all their trees.

Bum cultures produce bum outcomes. Diamond gives another example about a tribe of people off the coast of New Zealand who came into contact with boat-borne invaders from a nearby island. Rather than arm themselves and take to the hills, the home team immediately sought to make peace with the invaders, because calm and canny dispute resolution was the very essence of their custom. Unfortunately, the very essence of the custom of the incoming tribe was to kill everyone who wasn’t part of their tribe. One of the two cultures still exists today. Perhaps you can guess which.

Which isn’t to say that any culture isn’t worth preserving in its own right. They’re all splendidly unique. And more and more, anthropologists are tending to just leave primitive people the fuck alone unless they ask for an intervention. Perhaps, after the great origami-and-lion-taming craze of 2017 and the grand Russian-roulette-n-moonwalking meme of 2019 have wiped most of them out, society will rally to protect the few dozen Jack Wills lads and ladettes who survive.

You'd like to think that we could find a space for them somewhere – perhaps we could siphon them off into their own ethnic reserve on the wide-open plains of Berkshire, where, every night, as the Jagie-bombs go up and the trousers go down, they will be free to rut and snort and set random things on fire and enthuse about Duke Dumont to their hearts’ content. And finally, at long last, find the peace they seek.

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

Collage by Marta Parszeniew

Previously – Won't Somebody Please Think of the Poor Old Satanists?