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Laura’s Word 13 February 2014

London, UK
Flapping over Flappy Bird & NekNominate

Hello the Internet. You’ve been busy recently, haven’t you? When you’re not wreaking drunken havoc and stirring up tabloid headlines with viral idiocy like NekNominate, you’ve been turning the lives of unsuspecting Vietnamese game developers upside down. Fleeting flurries of mass hysteria is really nothing new in this era of hyper-connected oversharing, but this week two seemingly unrelated crazes, NekNominate and Flappy Bird, have really got me thinking. Not about technology but about humanity.

For those blessed with living in a country where this alcohol-driven showboating is not a ‘thing’, let me bring you up to date. NekNominate is an online mutant hybrid of a drinking game and ‘chicken’. It’s said to have originated in Australia but has spread pretty quickly around the world. Players film themselves downing a pint and doing something stupid and then nominate the next person to play. Inevitably as the game became more virulent the drinks became more potent and the stunts more extreme. The media has already attributed four UK deaths to NekNominate, and while I’m aware of the newspapers’ penchant for a bit of ‘Reefer Madness’ style hyperbole, if the deaths are linked it’s really very sad.

However. Don’t hand in your ‘faith in humanity’ card quite yet. For just as NekNominate looked like it was never going to disappear a modern day King Arthur appeared, wielding an iPhone Excalibur and readying itself to slay the beast. RAKNominate (Random Acts of Kindess) has arisen as an opposing force. One by one, individuals who have been subjected to a nek nomination are saying ‘no’. And rather than just ignore the request or quietly trying to weasel out of a dare, they’ve decided to call out their friends’ idiocy and use the very peer pressure that drove the craze to begin with to put an end to it. They film themselves spending however much money they would have spent on booze in order to do something nice for a stranger. Buy a homeless man lunch. Give a stranger a bunch of flowers. It leaves the neknominators looking like chumps. Traditional martial arts like Wing Chun counsel practitioners to use an attacker’s energy and momentum to destabilise them, rather than flat out resisting it – and it’s interesting to see that same principle playing out online. 

As I mentioned already, the other story to get the Internet in a flap this week is Flappy Birds, an insanely difficult game that’s been downloaded over 50 million times. At the end of January, YouTube star PewDiePie uploaded a review of the game which sent an already popular game stratospheric. But rather than revel in his new-found online fame, the game’s developer Dong Nguyen was driven to remove Flappy Bird from the iStore. In Tweets and an interview with Forbes magazine, it appeared that the unexpected popularity of the game and media attention had become too much to cope with. Dong Nguyen also explained that the frustrating difficulty and addictive nature of the game had been unintended and he was unhappy that it was inspiring such emotions in players. 

So what does Flappy Bird have to do with NekNominate? For one thing, both phenomena have got me thinking about the real life consequences – both positive and negative – of the information age. It’s a paradox that our species can create things that our brains are not necessarily ready to cope with. There’s no way Nguyen could have predicted that his game would be the one in a million in the App Store to become a blockbuster. The speed and pervasiveness of the ‘always on’ culture means that fame and success can be more spontaneous and more stressful than ever before. And then of course, there are the families of those who may have died because of NekNominate – and the countless strangers whose days have been brightened up by a cheeky and subversive resistance movement.

But more than that, while the RAKnominaters managed to wrong-foot NekNominate, Dong Nguyen’s blunt force approach to killing off Flappy Bird has had quite the opposite effect. Inevitably the removal of Flappy Bird has made the game even more of a talking point – iPhones installed with the game have been receiving bids of up to £150,000 (although as CNet points out, ebay has been taking down the listings as they contravene their rules). People are stubborn beasts – or ‘thrawn’, a good Scots word. The narrative of behavioural economics and nudging suggests a docile, compliant populace, but while we are all far more suggestible than we like to admit we’re not yet entirely brain dead. Tell us we can’t do something and we want to do it. That’s why NekNominate took off in the first place (and newspaper schlock outrage can’t but have helped stir the pot). And it’s why poor old Dong Nguyen still can’t escape the Flappy Bird hype. 

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