Social 3 January 2019 | 11:11

Don’t try this at home

03 January 2019 11:11

It started, as so often, with a hashtag – in this case, #BirdBoxChallenge. This particular meme was inspired by the eponymous Netflix movie, Bird Box (Susanne Bier, 2018), now featuring on the streaming digital platform.

Starring Sandra Bullock, it portrays a dystopian world in which the characters are forced to wear blindfolds to avoid contact with demonic beings that compel them to suicide. Nice premise; bit too similar to A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018), in which silence rather than blindness is essential to survival; a perfectly decent evening’s entertainment.

Unfortunately, the border between entertainment and reality has become rather too porous, and social media is ablaze with idiotic copycats seeing what they can do whilst wearing a blindfold (work out at the gym, let their toddlers walk into walls, and much else besides).

So potentially dangerous has the craze become that Netflix US last night issued the following warning on Twitter: ‘Can’t believe I have to say this, but: PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE. We don’t know how this started, and we appreciate the love, but Boy and Girl [characters in the movie] have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes.’

I am sure Netflix is sincere in its advice, but not so certain about its declared incredulity. The global reach of the streaming giant remains extraordinary: in the third quarter of 2018 alone, it reported revenue of $4 billion and 6.96 million new subscriptions. It is responsible for the most acclaimed arthouse film of 2018, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. We now live on Planet Netflix and – as if in a dystopian world of the witless – take our social media cues from its content.

As for the social significance of the trend, do read Pete’s piece on Bandersnatch for the increasingly porous border between movie-watching and game-playing. What the #BirdBoxChallenge also shows, I think, is that we are essentially a herd species, hardwired, for all our pretensions to free will and considered individualism, to do what others are doing.

The best book on this subject by far is Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature by Mark Earls, which, a decade after its first publication remains an indispensable manual to what the author calls ‘the physics of mass behaviour’: from the reaction to the death of Diana, Prince of Wales – the so-called ‘cellotaph’ of floral tributes – to our response to a superior B-movie, there is more evidence in human affairs of imitation than independence.

Which is mostly fine when the matter in hand is the public’s response to a Netflix movie; but a bit more worrying when you watch the crowd’s behaviour at a Donald Trump rally.