The idea of challenging one’s limits is intimately linked to human nature, and the very concept of human progress has been repeatedly interpreted as an attempt to raise the bar of what’s possible, pushing the idea of what is humanly achievable further and further.
It may sound banal, but we could say that challenges are the way in which human beings come to terms with their mortal nature, exploring the boundaries of their own body and abilities. After all, popular culture is full of references to the concept of challenge: from the chivalrous duels of the Middle Ages to “chickie runs” – the crazy car race shown in the film Rebel without a cause – or the bet at the center of one of French author Jules Verne’s most successful adventure novels, Around The World in 80 Days.
Challenges have been ultimately sublimated through sports competitions: the achievement of new records is still one of the engines that move the passions and stories we witness every four years with the Olympics. It’s a prime example of individuals measuring themselves against fellow human beings and the world, but also against themselves and their limits. In most areas, challenges have been codified or inserted within a framework of pre-established rules, with the aim of avoiding excesses and irregularities, but this does not apply to every kind of challenge.
Some challenges are more extreme than others, especially when they take place between teenagers and they arise from the desire to show courage in the face of dangerous – often too dangerous – circumstances. This is the case, for example, of self-restraining games, which according to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the US body for the control and prevention of diseases), between 1995 and 2007 caused at least 82 victims in the 6-19 years old age range in the United States alone. The CDCs call it “the choking game”, and it takes place by compressing one’s airways (or those of a consenting person) “to reach a brief state of euphoria caused by cerebral hypoxia” , or from the decrease of oxygen to the brain. The phenomenon is also known as airplaining (from the feeling of lack of air that is found at high altitude, in an airplane), space monkey, suffocation game, pass out game, dream game or blackout.
In France, the same phenomenon – called “le jeu du foulard” – has caused “a dozen deaths every year” since 2000, according to an association created to raise awareness among young people on the issue. In 2018, the American weekly Time dedicated an article to the topic, writing that “the Choking Game’s instructions were once spread through word of mouth and carried out in pairs or groups, with one child squeezing air out of another but stopping just short of the danger point”.
Along the lines of the choking game, there’s another challenge drives teenagers to snort butane gas (that can be found in lighters) to obtain a brief sensation of alteration, with often fatal consequences, and one that leads them to “surf” on the roof of moving cars (causing 58 deaths and 41 injuries in United States between 1990 and 2008). In Italy, over the past decades, there’s been a wave of people throwing stones from overbridges: according to a report by the Osservatorio sassi dal cavalcavia organised by the Association of Supporters and Friends of the Traffic Police (ASAPS), the phenomenon is “old and endemic”, having caused 8 deaths in the country between 1986 and 2005. The episodes were mostly triggered by minors.
Extreme challenges, however, made a leap into mainstream culture thanks to social networks. These formidable tools for disseminating content and ideas entered their mature phase starting from 2006, with the global success achieved by Facebook and Twitter. The platforms created by Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have contributed to revolutionizing the languages and aggregative dynamics of the generation known as “digital natives”, representing an indispensable springboard for subsequent experiences of online social networks.
It’s impossible to discuss current social media platforms without mentioning Instagram and TikTok. These apps are currently considered Gen Z’s virtual places of choice, as well as the main actors in a new era of social networking centered around sharing images and videos, supplanting the centrality of text that characterized the first decade of the 2000s. Alongside YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have quickly become the ideal means of communication to spread challenges that can now fully be defined as “social challenges”.
To learn more about the role of new media (and in particular of TikTok) in the creation and dissemination of viral challenges, we asked Federico Rognoni, a very young social media strategist and communication expert, about the platform, that’s dedicated to short videos.
Rognoni, what makes TikTok an ideal tool for spreading online challenges?