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Sophie Donaldson: 'Very modern fate of the woman who fell to her death taking a bikini selfie'

Gigi Wu died as she snapped a photo for people she didn't know. We have been warned, writes Sophie Donaldson

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‘After reaching the summit, she would post a pic of herself in a bikini...’

‘After reaching the summit, she would post a pic of herself in a bikini...’

‘After reaching the summit, she would post a pic of herself in a bikini...’

Last Monday, news reports emerged about the death of a woman named Gigi Wu, who had plunged 30ft into a gorge in central Taiwan.

Wu had gained internet notoriety in Taiwan as the 'Bikini Hiker', with 14,000 followers on her Facebook page that documented the hikes she completed around the country. Her USP was that, after reaching the top of a summit, Wu would post a photo of herself in a bikini.

After her fall, she tried to use a satellite phone to make a distress call - but poor weather forced rescue teams to travel by foot, so her body was not recovered for another 43 hours, by which time she had perished. It is believed she died of hypothermia.

Wu's death is dreadful both for the loss of life and for the drawn-out chain of events that saw a young woman attempt a four-day hike, alone, in order to take a photo for the approval of tens of thousands of people she would never meet.

The things people do for social media acclaim run the gamut from frivolous to fatal, as seen with Wu's tragic and unnecessary death. We know that social media has the power to trigger 'happy' hormones in the brain, leading us to engage in compulsive behaviour in order to keep the good feelings flowing. But the counter-effect of these endorphin spikes are endorphin troughs, where people descend into states of depression, loneliness, self-loathing or dysmorphic thinking.

Our understanding of the negative effects of social media is still in the relatively early stages, but two documentaries released last week give us a pretty good idea of how easy it is to be duped by what people post online.

Fyre Festival was a music festival planned to take place on a Bahamian island in April and May 2017. The festival initially made headlines for the stable of international models that worked together on its promotional video.

Not only were they beautiful but each boasted millions of online followers, and thus were considered social media influencers, too. Thanks to the hypnotic video of beautiful women frolicking on beaches, and the claims put forth by the festival organisers that promised punters a music festival like no other, tickets soon sold out. The ticket prices too were like no other - they rocketed into the tens of thousands and promised private villas, chartered flights and yacht parties.

While festivalgoers were tantalised by the festival's Instagram account that continued to upload aspirational images, most of the organisers were in a panic because what they had promised didn't really exist.

The private island was not, in fact, private, but an underdeveloped section of Great Exuma, a resort island. Luxury accommodation turned out to be tents left over from a hurricane relief effort. Basic infrastructure - plumbing, running water, electricity and internet - was tenuous.

Despite this, and many other logistical disasters, plane-loads of festivalgoers arrived on the island and descended into a sort of Hunger Games, due to the lack of decent food and water. The two documentaries, on US streaming sites Hulu and Netflix, take different standpoints but both make for disturbing viewing.

Another coterie of influential young celebrities who make money from online endorsements made the headlines last week, too. UK celebrities including Rita Ora, Alexa Chung and Ellie Goulding have formally agreed to clearly state when a product or experience they post about was either paid for or given for free. In effect, this is an acknowledgment that up until this point they have been misleading followers, many of whom are young impressionable females desperate to emulate their favourite star.

The pledges were made after a crackdown by the UK's Competition and Markets Authority, who released a guide for UK-based influencers, as did the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland last year.

In five or 10 or 15 years' time, the sociological, psychological and economic ramifications of social media will probably be evident. Younger generations will ask how stupid you'd have to be to let it get to the point where people are falling to their death for a selfie, or spending thousands of dollars to party with a woman famous for a topless video - so let this be the week that we learn our lesson.

If these three events don't make us change the way we engage with social media then we have nobody to blame but ourselves when it all goes horribly wrong - unless it's too late for that already.

Sunday Independent