On Twitter, mourning is collective

Posted Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Within minutes of the news of Robin Williams’ death Monday, his legions of fans — regular people and celebrities, too — were creating an electronic scrapbook of his life in real time.

News feeds on social media sites were transformed into highlight reels from his stand-up routines, his Academy Award acceptance speech, his performances in films like Good Morning, Vietnam and Good Will Hunting.

Mindy Kaling wrote on Twitter that she’d been named after Williams’ fictional co-star on Mork & Mindy. Director Judd Apatow tweeted that he’d taken a job as an intern at Comic Relief “just to be near him.” On Facebook, Chevy Chase posted a photograph of himself with Williams and Steve Martin.

When beloved celebrities died in an earlier era, we rushed home and gathered around our television sets. Now we stare at our smartphones on the street, reading posts, watching clips, maybe even sharing a memory or emotion of our own. In the age of social media, everyone is an obituary writer.

Part of the magic of movies and television has always been their ability to create the feeling that you actually know the people you’re watching. That fantasy has become more powerfully enabled by the rise of Facebook and Twitter, which creates a direct connection between celebrities and their fans.

By late Tuesday afternoon, Steve Carell’s 10 word tribute — “Robin Williams made the world a little bit better. RIP.” — had been retweeted 63,276 times, and “favorited” by 84,710 people.

The social media obituary is still evolving, its prominence rising in tandem with the growth of the medium and advances in technology. When Michael Jackson died in 2009, Twitter had millions fewer active users. (Today, it has 271 million.) It was also much harder to post photos, and mobile video was glitchy.

When images were passed around on social media, they often showed up as links, not the multimedia collages that greet users today.

Before we had learned anything but the most general circumstances of Williams’ death, later ruled a suicide, we were seeing — without intermediaries — the almost instantaneous reactions of those who knew him personally or were moved by one, or many, of the characters he had inhabited.

On Facebook, Jennifer Lopez posted a photograph of herself and Williams from the movie Jack. “He brought light to every room he entered & was a true comedic genius,” she wrote.

In Williams’ case, the reaction was especially intense because the descriptions of his death seemed to fit neatly into a familiar narrative: the clown whose comedic public persona masked a deep sadness. That his death was reported not on a weekend or in the middle of the night but on a weekday afternoon, Pacific time, helped produce a lot more “traffic.”

What inspires all of these people to post? It’s part Kilroy — this happened to me, I was there — and part collective mourning.

“It’s a more intense communal experience of these events than existed before,” said author and radio host Kurt Andersen.

For some, the act of tweeting about the death of a public figure is not only cathartic but ennobling as well. So much of the conversation on social media is frivolous or snarky. Here’s a chance to express yourself on a serious subject; you have a built-in audience for your feelings. It can also be an occasion to make a larger point about the underlying cause.

“If you’re sad, please tell someone,” Jimmy Kimmel wrote on Twitter. In the immediate aftermath of the news of Williams’ death, the number of tweets about him quickly spiked to about 63,000 a minute.

But if social media makes the death of a public figure burn brighter, it also makes it fade faster. If you missed the moment — if you were away from your phone for some reason — you can scroll back in time, but the real-time experience can’t really be replicated.

And if you just spent an hour on your phone, immersed in the life and death of Robin Williams, will you turn on your TV to check out CNN’s coverage when you get home, let alone pick up a copy of next week’s People magazine?

Enough celebrities have died unexpectedly, tragically, in recent years that we’ve become accustomed to this new ritual. But when you take a step back, there’s still something a little strange about a death “trending,” or being given a hashtag, even if it’s #robinwilliamswillliveonforever.

Maybe Williams’ friend Billy Crystal tweeted it best: “No words.”

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