Everyone's freaking out about "planking," after an Australian kid died while attempting to lie face down on a balcony railing seven-stories up. How did a years-old meme become the hottest new deadly internet thing? It wasn't the internet's fault.
Acton Beale died last weekend after falling off a 7th-floor balcony in Brisbane. Sure, the 20-year-old had been drinking, but the coverage of his death has focused almost exclusively on the fact that he had been "planking."
Planking is simple: You lie face down in a weird, funny or dangerous place, then get your buddy to take your picture and upload it to Facebook. Beale, however, was the "first planking death."
Now there's a full-blown planking panic. "Ultimately, is it worth life in a wheelchair to take a funny photo to impress somebody you don't know on the Internet?" fretted Queensland deputy commissioner Ross Barnett.
The media and authorities have branded planking a grassroots craze that grew like cancer from the pungent swamp of social networks and exhibitionism. But it's not. Planking was just a tiny fleck of net culture before the mainstream media came and blew it up.
Here's how it happened:
1) An Australian copies an old meme: Planking is not at all a new thing. 25-year-old Adelaide resident Sam Weckert claims he and a buddy coined the "planking" moniker in the summer of 2008 to describe their practice of laying down on on dance floors as a prank. But as BuzzFeed points out, planking is just the latest incarnation of the ancient internet meme: The Lying Down Game. The Lying Down Game (LDG) is generally believed to have been launched in 2006 by a couple friends from Sussex, England. It produced its own craze in July of 2009 and was covered by media all over the world. The original Lying Down Facebook page still remains, and dismisses planking as an Australian "copycat."
2) He launches a Facebook page: In January 2009, Weckert launches a Facbeook page called "Official Planking." For about two years, Official Planking, and planking itself, languishes in Facebook obscurity. "I never thought it would get to 5,000 or 10,000 [fans]" Weckert told the BBC.
4) The media turns planking into a viral marketing strategy: Wecker told the BBC that planking "didn't really blow up until a few local radio stations got hold of it, ran competitions, and it grew very quickly." That was this February: Adelaide radio station Nova 919 really pushes planking, posting a "how to plank" video on YouTube (now locked down), soliciting planking pictures from users and posting their own on their website. Before February, there are zero mentions of planking on Twitter.
5) Planking gets a celebrity endorsement: Even with the media attention, planking probably would have not taken off had it not been for Australian rugby player David "Wolfman" Williams. On March 16th, Williams appears on the national radio station Triple J to "spread the holy word of the gospel according to planking." Planking becomes Williams' trademark when he planks as a celebration after scoring in late March. In late April, a popular Australian rugby show devotes nearly five minutes to Williams' planking.
6) Planking pisses off the cops: Thanks to the radio station's push and Williams' endorsement, Planking has strong underground buzz coming into May with thousands of likes on Facebook and plenty of spin-off pages. More people are planking than ever. But it doesn't explode into a true viral sensation until cops say they don't like it: On May 11th, police charge a man in Gladstone, Australia after he planks on their police car. They issue an astonishingly straight-faced press release calling warning the public of the dangers of planking.
7) Planking blows up in the media: The police statement has the exact opposite effect than intended. According to the Brisbane Times, the police statement sparked 624 mentions of planking in mainstream media over the next 48 hours, compared to just 56 mentions in the two previous months. The hosts of a popular morning show plank their couch, and trend pieces are penned. By the weekend, the previously modest numbers of the Official Planking page grows to more than 107,000.
8) The first planking death: With the death of Beale, the journey from obscure Facebook page to "deadly internet trend" is complete. Official Planking now has 147,371 "likes."
Planking had been around since early 2009, but only through a very familiar pattern of celebrity endorsement and media coverage did it become a fad. Radio stations saw it as a good way to drive traffic to their website, a famous rugby player saw a chance to build his brand. The internet helped spread planking, but what doesn't the internet help spread these days? TV and newspaper reporters (wrongly) saw the makings of a "viral trend" and covered it as such, creating the craze they were pretending to have discovered.