Wildlife World Zoo officials have said the woman attacked by a jaguar Saturday was taking a selfie. The incident gained national attention, and the woman at the center of it has made various statements.

She told azfamily.com she “never crossed the barrier,” and was “not trying to get a selfie.” And in an interview with CBS News, she said the jaguar was walking by the fence, and she wanted to get some good pictures.

Either scenario has renewed discussions about our social media culture. One social media researcher from Arizona State University said the behavior reflects a new cultural norm.

More than 250 people have died since 2011 because of taking selfies in risky locations, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care. A movement, #selfietodiefor, has developed to try to deter people from taking risks like taking a selfie while perched on the edge of a cliff.

K. Hazel Kwon, an assistant professor specializing in social media research, explained why people take reckless selfies, the danger of public shaming and other aspects of the relationship between social media and society.

The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

The woman attacked by the jaguar says she was trying to get a photo. We all make poor decisions, but do you think this could be associated with the larger effect of social media on society?

Partly, yes. Especially if the motivation was to take a selfie, then definitely social media culture is a big part of it. The selfie itself is a part of normal culture – almost everyone who uses social media uses the selfie. But at the same time what the selfie actually tells us is that ordinary users use them to act as what I call a micro broadcaster. A micro broadcaster, in many cases, are broadcasting to people in their personal networks.

Now, if you think of those users as a micro broadcaster, we can make an analogy to the journalist. We sort of create this journalist identity with our content and measure how we can attract audiences – and we call this newsworthiness. There is research that social media content also has this same value, and it is called ‘share-worthiness.’

Taking a selfie with an extreme background or an oddity has a higher share worthiness and a higher level of emotional appeal, because it’s scary, or has a high level of emotional arousal. And so, having this rare animal oddity, those are the components of this being shared, getting more likes and building this digital reputation.

So social media basically turned the selfie into a part of daily lives, and it’s a subconscious attempt to become more popular?

Users strategically know what content will gain in popularity. And an oddity, like taking a photo with a rare animal, does have a share worthiness – just like a news value. And she knew this when she took it, but the consequence was not really what she was looking for.

Are there other patterns of behavior, beyond the reckless selfie, that are influenced by social media or digital culture?

Well, the underlying motivations are self preservation, self disclosure, and the desire of connectivity. Remember the ice bucket challenge? The ice bucket challenge was actually a positive phenomenon but had the exact same motivations. Basically you are presenting yourself and making yourself a shareable object by pouring the ice on yourself.

You are also presenting it in a really nice way because it has a high social currency: you are helping others. You are engaging in a positive post and it has gone viral and is a sharable thing. But at the same time you are connected to others by broadcasting what you are doing.

It’s more than only the selfie component of digital media culture, because this challenge is a participatory activity but the underlying motivations are pretty much the same. And this type of activity can also go negatively. There have been college kids and young adults participating in a digital cultural virality – it was through a YouTube video – and it was binge drinking in a very excessive manner. So it’s a life threatening thing, but you are still challenging others to do that.

This influence – it sounds like it’s not necessarily a bad thing or something to be concerned about. But it can be?

Right. I would say that what technology affords us should not be called either good or bad. In the end it’s on the human agent. It can be used for really wonderful things, but at the same time people are not always rational. Sometimes we fall into this trap of making a mistake.

All of us, at some time, make a mistake and do a stupid thing. The only different thing is whether that stupid thing can be viral and can be sharable or not. And I think one of the dangers of our digital culture, a byproduct of this selfie and sharing culture, is that once the shared content about one’s self is collectively perceived as dumb or stupid, then people all of a sudden objectify it and become busy pointing it out, laughing at it, making this human – who made a mistake – completely as if they are not a human anymore.

They become a target of public shaming. I actually think that is the more dangerous part than individuals acting up and sometimes making a stupid mistake.

Do you feel bad for her? (The attack became national news and went viral.)

I do feel bad for her, if I can say so. In terms of motivation – and again I’m not sure what her motivation exactly was, maybe it was pure intellectual curiosity about how it looked – but if her motivation was to take a selfie and post it on social media – absolutely social media culture motivated her, so there is some cause to this tragic incident. But at the same time, rather than the physical harm that she took, I think the psychological harm of people laughing at her, and blaming her for doing such a stupid thing – I think that would be even more enduring harm for her.

For us average users, we have to think about she’s not just an object, that’s another human like us who just happened to make a mistake.


Story by ANDREW WEI, Cronkite News