I plank, therefore I am

On May 15 this year a young Australian man fell to his death from a seventh-floor balcony. He fell while attempting to take part in the new fad known as “planking”, in which participants are photographed while lying like a plank of wood in unusual places.

Apparently this fad has been around for a while, but it seems to have enjoyed a rush of sudden popularity thanks to two elements ofmodern technology: ubiquitous digital cameras, and online social networks. Without the ability to photograph and share these planking feats, it is hard to imagine this unusual fad gaining the attention it now enjoys.

For what it’s worth, I find some of the “planking” photographs amusing,and others verge on a kind of grass-roots performance art. We could discuss at length the aesthetic qualities of a human being holding a tense yet strangely dignified pose in a series of bizarre locations. As the great British writer G.K. Chesterton pointed out, it is human dignity that sets the stage for human humour:

“Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stops in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of the snow coming down. The fall of thunderbolts is treated with some gravity. The fall of roofs and high buildings is taken seriously. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.”

But after viewing a dozen or so planking photographs, I find I’ve reached saturation point. I’m tempted to ask “what is the point?” but I already know the answer. The point is that planking is fun, creative, novel,competitive, and relatively easy to accomplish. It draws people into a brief and spontaneous online community (nothing new) with the added value of creating their own “real-life” content within prescribed criteria: “hold this pose in a novel or amusing location”. Being so easy to accomplish, the barriers to entry are extremely low. Yet the practice is implicitly competitive, with participants striving to achieve ever more novel or extreme or amusing photographs. With so many positive aspects to the art of planking,surely the rewards are self-evident?

It’s easy to be contemptuous of this fad, but it draws on the same dynamics as a range of other social activities and “communities of practice”. Who among us has not gleefully taken part in some frivolous social activity of the type that is “all fun and games until someone loses an eye”?And who can deny that their own more serious and respectable hobbies invoke the same driving forces of fun, creativity, novelty, competition, and, above all, social belonging and affirmation? So let’s not rush to judge or condemn planking for its silliness or inanity, lest we miss the plank in our own eye. After all, are sports enthusiasts foolish to wreck their bodies for the sake of a good game? Do avid readers or dedicated gamers waste their time on fantasy worlds? Do classic car lovers deserve disdain for lavishing money and attention on their outmoded vehicles?

Of course, most of our hobbies or pastimes do not carry such a risk of death and injury for so modest a reward. Aside from the death in Brisbane, another 20-year-old man lies comatose in New South Wales after allegedly attempting to “plank” on the boot of a moving vehicle. The risk of death was likewise an insufficient deterrent to two industrial workers who kept their balance, but lost their jobs after planking atop smokestacks some sixty metres above the ground. Never before, it seems, have so many risked so much for so little.

It’s the sheer lack of proportion between risk and reward that makes these notable cases of planking seem insane, and make me wonder about the deeper motive. “Safer” examples of planking may be as innocuous as a lolcat, but it’s obviously the most extreme and therefore risky stunts that win greatest acclaim and affirmation. As the not-quite-so-risky naked Swan River planker explained:

“I think this has gained me a fair bit of respect among people in my age group and that, of course, includes the ladies […] Everyone is telling me it’s the best plank they've ever seen. My housemates are telling me how proud they are to live with a celebrity.”

It’s a little unnerving to consider that people are risking their lives for social affirmation accelerated and intensified by the power of online social networking. The Planking Australia Facebook page has nearly 160,000 followers, all ready to offer their mutual encouragement and affirmation. Is this online affirmation really worth the dangers it inspires? To those of us on the outside looking in, the answer is obvious. Yet it clearly holds such power for a minority of people.

Social affirmation is indeed a powerful force, and the planking phenomenon should alert us to the fact that online communities can wield tremendous power without the corresponding responsibility. The 160,000people who encourage planking and applaud dangerous stunts will not bear the burden of stunts that go wrong, jobs that are lost and injuries that are suffered. In real life, to applaud someone you must usually be standing in physical proximity to them. If you clap and laugh while someone risks his neck,you will feel at least some obligation to call an ambulance when he breaks his neck. If nothing else, your light-hearted mood will be shattered by the tragedy. But Facebook fans are, almost by definition, a remote and filtered audience. They will applaud your stunt, but they may not even hear about your tragic accident.   

ZacAlstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.


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