At the end of January, the “Neknominate” trend reared its head and invaded our Facebook-centred worlds. It was yet another viral craze soaring the dizzyingly infinite heights of the Internet and then, just as suddenly, fading into almost-oblivion. This cultural phenomenon has been possible because of social media, our pervasive usage of which has helped propel several other trends over the last half-decade. But what are the triggers? The side effects? Are Internet trends harmless and a part of growing up, or are there darker connotations to them?
Neknominate is an online drinking game in which the participant must down a pint of alcohol, before nominating friends to do the same within 24 hours. It is by no means the first of its kind: the trend was preceded by the Harlem Shake, and before that, planking and the Cinnamon Challenge. Indeed, many such trends take the form of challenges, where the challenged must take an “anything you can do, I can do better” mentality. Planking had to be funny, it had to be original, and it had to rake in the “likes” on Facebook. And so, around Internet trends grew a culture of competitive masculinity. A little competition is never a bad thing, but what sets Neknominate apart from its predecessors is its “nominate a friend” (well, two) policy. Because of this, rather than simply being a global craze with voluntary participants, this was a pandemic that all Internet users were a part of (the six degrees of separation rule being demonstrated to astounding effect).
It’s ingenious on the part of its creators, but on the flip side, it creates an ugly culture of peer pressure surrounding the game. No one is immune to such pressures, and the rules of the game had some asking, “What happens if you refuse a Neknomination?.” Ridiculous as it sounds, some people don’t realise that participation is voluntary. The mentality surrounding Neknominate doesn’t give room for refusal to “step up to the challenge.” It doesn’t help that the game is entirely conducted in the public eye. Social media has cultivated a space in which shame is visual, permanent and very public. Further, Facebook’s selective, hyperbolic nature means that such viral trends as Neknominate inevitably spiral into the ridiculous, encouraging extreme risk-taking behaviours. Sadly, this peer pressure has resulted in a number of deaths.
The central fact of the Internet is that it is an equaliser. Absolutely anyone can be nominated for Neknominate. Escaping the hierarchies of popularity at school, this is something in which the cool kids and the more socially awkward alike can participate. If you participate, you are “in” on the latest craze. It is seen by some as a window to temporary popularity/fame. Such trends are like an infinite game of Truth or Dare, in which there are no limits, both socially and in terms of content. It is because of this that many voices have sprung up in protest against the “stupidity” and “immaturity” of trends like Neknominate and planking.
Brent Lindeque’s YouTube video “A South African NekNomination” aims to harness the scope of Internet trends for positive change. After giving a homeless person lunch, he nominates two friends to do one good deed. Lindeque’s video led to the spin-off “Raknominations,” encouraging random acts of kindness. The unfortunate truth is that Raknominate will probably not go viral like its parent trend, simply because it does not involve the same intoxicating (ha) mix of bravado, entertainment value and (for want of a better word) “lad points.” It is just not cool to be kind.