THE BLOG

Neknominate: Getting Behind a Viral Craze

06/03/2014 11:11 GMT | Updated 05/05/2014 10:59 BST

Another week, another social networking fad -- this time, it's the curiously-named NekNomination. Still described at the start of 2014 as 'Australia's extreme Facebook drinking game' - reflecting its apparent origins - things have moved quickly. Such is the viral spread of the phenomenon that you're probably already well aware that NekNomination is an online drinking challenge where nominees film themselves 'necking' an alcoholic drink and then nominate others to follow suit, posting the video and nominations on social networking sites.

The game has been a news media staple since the beginning of the year, most of them decrying the irresponsibility of NekNominees, the inherent risks of competitive drinking (as demonstrated by the reported deaths of participants), and the popularity of the game amongst underage drinkers. Predictably, the UK's self-appointed moral guardian, the Daily Mail, led the way. In one of many broadsides (14 February), they warned us to: 'Beware the lethal world of Neknominate: How my teenage son was sucked into the terrifying Facebook drink craze'. It has become a matter of public health; Health Minister Jane Ellison isolated the social pressure involved, speaking gravely of the risk of being bullied online if they 'chicken out'. Calls to ban the practice have followed, led by local councils, and schools have started issuing alerts to staff and parents.

The public reaction is somewhat predictable given that NekNomination unites three of the most popular concerns in contemporary Britain: young people, Facebook, and binge-drinking. A discernible undercurrent is that of young people's vulnerability and parental impotence. Reaction has been even more strident in Australia, where it's fed into an already existing anxiety about alcohol-fuelled violence. Politicians are demanding new restrictions on alcohol sales and service and, bizarrely, mandatory minimum sentences for people who kill others with one punch while intoxicated, following a spate of incidents.

It would be easy to explain away NekNomination as yet another moral panic. But to do so would be to miss much of what's intriguing and interesting about the new online craze. For one thing, in its essentials, NekNomination is just like any other small group drinking game: here's a small group of friends doing what they ordinarily do on a night out -- issuing drinking challenges, trying to out-do one another, throwing out in-jokes, and lauding those who dare to go that bit further than the rest. Thinking about NekNomination like this -- as a regular drinking game -- is instructive, because it forces us to focus on what's actually new about it and what difference social networking sites have made to small group's socialising rituals.

From this perspective, NekNomination might strike us as at once more public and more private than the regular drinking games it resembles. More public because, in most cases, a Neknomination video and its related posts can be watched by someone's entire online community of friends, family, and acquaintances -- that's a pool of people that may well include Aunt Janet, Mum, the boss, the ex, and some random friends from Primary School. And some make their way onto media sites and YouTube. This can make a difference to the act itself. Drinking challenges have always contained an element of outdoing others, but that is now magnified into acts that outdo global competitors rather than a close circle. Witness Rebecca Dagley, 19, from Leicester, UK where she performed hers in the middle of a supermarket, having revealed herself in sexy underwear. Her video is still online (potential employers beware!) on news media sites in neknominate's Australian homeland (9 News World, February 10).

On the other hand, NekNomination is distinctly private in that it's usually a solo performance -- hence the fact that one of the central features of the NekNomination video is the laboured documentation of the feat so as to validate, in the absence of any witnesses to the event, that the nomination really was fulfilled. The videos make for rather grimly fascinating viewing but bereft of the sociability and irresponsible fun of their predecessors.

This mixture of the ultra-public and the deeply private is, of course, characteristic of communication on social networking sites. That this form of communication has been co-opted to perform small group drinking rituals that, historically, have required members to be physically present, act as a closed social group, perform feats in unison, and adhere to tight in-group rules is really curious. And it seems to become, in the process, a very different kind of experience altogether.

In a practical sense the solitary completion of the task is potentially more hair raising, as others aren't present to look after friends who have gone too far. We're also interested in how the movement of drinking games from the bar to the online world means that what would in the past have been dictated by a strict set of rules now has an element of creative licence. This means that the game itself, like much of what we experience online, has been transformed by its participants. Here, for example, one can point to the morphing of 'NekNomination' into 'RakNomination', in which people respond to a NekNomination by performing a Random Act of Kindness instead. The most recent morphing - for reasons entirely unknown to us - is into 'Nic-nominate' where participants post a picture of Con Air actor, Nicolas Cage, expressing an emotion, and include friends nominating to do likewise. Looking further back, at what point did the necking stop being a fun challenge to simply have a drink in an unconventional, even forbidden place (like our supermarket nekker above) and become instead focused on the drink itself, making it ever more disgusting? Is that because it spread to a different audience like the university rugby club?

Researchers at the University of Kent and Royal Holloway are in the process of studying the motivations, responses and concerns of those who have been NekNominated. We're interested in the role that peer pressure is playing in how people respond to these social media-based nominations, what considerations are being taken by those who participate in NekNomination in terms of completing the tasks, privacy setting of their videos, potential health concerns, and whether or not participants themselves see any differences between NekNomination and more traditional drinking games.

If you've been nominated, please take 5 minutes to complete our survey - whether you then carried out the challenge, or not: https://survey.kent.ac.uk/neknom/