NekNomination videos – a social media drinking game which involves (mainly) young men drinking potentially lethal combinations of alcohol and then issuing an online challenge to their friends to do the same – has rapidly become a global phenomenon. The trend has mutated as it has spread, incorporating a range of other challenges, such as eating or drinking the blood of dead animals, running around naked in public spaces such as Wal-Mart, or being shot at repeatedly by paint ball guns and air rifles while downing alcohol. In its latest incarnation, the NekNomination video has been framed as a public spectacle of pain, performed for an immediate circle of friends, but often circulated to a wider anonymous public via YouTube.
Commentators have decried the practice as idiotic and argue that the Internet trend for irresponsible drinking—which in some cases has led to death—is as ‘dull and stupid as every other drinking game’ (Hood 2014). A counter position states that these public displays of Internet idiocy should be seen as a form of subcultural resistance that ‘offers some kind of identity to (young) people’ in an age of global recession (Martin 2014). Neither position, to our minds, is satisfactory: the idea of NekNomination videos as either simply stupid or subversive fails to explore how this circulation of online pain invests in, and reconfigures, our understandings of embodiment, affect, and the performative stakes of online identity.
To whom are these virtuoso performances of stupidity addressed? The publicness of these videos is central to their allure. For as much as they allow for an expression of besieged masculinity defined through the public performance of pain, they also implicate those who look on—whether in humor, disgust, horror, or boredom. Part of what is so interesting for us about the NekNomination video is the way that it seems to bind both performers and viewers together in a kind of collective idiocy, confronting us with moments of excess that seem to both solicit and foreclose a meaningful response. However, even in the extreme example of violent masculine posturing in this video, we can see a glimmer—however faint—of a different and more meaningful affective response that might be mobilized through idiocy, such as care and concern as the men douse out flames and pick glass from one another’s wounds. How might we reframe NekNomination as opening up an ethics of response?