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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Public Mourning and Social Media: The Celebrity Death Edition

By now, you've seen countless news stories about the sudden and shocking death of actor and comic, Robin Williams. And your Facebook and Instagram feeds are teeming with RIPs, nanu-nanus, and images of Robin Williams, including screen shots from "Dead Poets Society," "Mrs. Doubtfire," and, most gut-wrenching of all, Robin Williams as the loveable, flamboyant Genie in Disney's "Aladdin", tenderly embracing the title character. We've now entered the celebrity tribute round of this morbid exercise, with comics and actors sharing their particular and personal special moments with the deceased, and even the President managed to get included in the conversation by offering up words of comfort as Mourner in Chief. And then former child star Todd Bridges had to go and open his mouth, calling Williams' suicide "cowardly," and he was soon joined by other anonymous minions spewing their digital venom at Williams and his family. The actor's daughter, Zelda Williams, was forced to quit Twitter and Instagram due to the rather outrageous behavior of these Internet trolls.

Welcome to Public Mourning and Social Media. 

The death of a celebrity has always ushered in a time of public reflection. Celebrities enter our lives and a certain intimate bond is created. Maybe we watched them on a sitcom with our families when we were children, or on the big screen as a favorite action hero when we were teenagers. I grew up watching Robin Williams - in "Happy Days" and "Mork & Mindy." I remember laughing hysterically and singing every line of "You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me" from "Aladdin," and trying to copy Williams' Scottish brogue in "Mrs. Doubtfire." There are friends of mine for whom "Dead Poets Society" became a touchstone as it exposed their own teenage fears and hopes and dreams. It is only natural to want to reach out and grieve in community with others who feel this loss. Social media, then, can become an outlet for grief, for some - a virtual version of an Irish wake. 

But, public mourning in social media can also expose our own vanity. Look at all of the "Likes" my quote from "Good Will Hunting" got! OhmyGod, Willie Geist on "Today" just said that my tribute in GIFs to Robin Williams got 2 million views on YouTube! Wow, did you see Jimmy Fallon/Norm MacDonald/Arsenio Hall/Carrot Top's tribute to Robin Williams - OMG I cried when I saw it! Look at me, I'm mourning! We clamour for the attention of our connection, no matter how tentative, to celebrity.

I fear that we've reached a point where even our mourning for the not-famous is becoming tangled in the social media web. I've attended funerals where mourners have snapped photos of the open casket or of the burial plot with their smartphones for their Facebook newsfeed. What's next? A selfie with the coffin?? 

However, there's something even less outrageous, but more pervasive and unsettling, that's happening. It's a pressure to post about the deaths of our loved ones. There used to be the right to privacy about life and death and everything in between. Now, as we share our vacations, engagements, weddings, promotions, and births in real time, we also share sickness and death. When my father died, I felt compelled to post photos of Dad and our family in happier times, to share stories from our life together. With each "like", I felt there was one more person who must understand the pain I felt, a pain that would define me in a totally new way and that I wanted the world, or at least my corner of the world, to know. But, social media is a fickle thing - not everything you post is read by everyone you've "friended," not every "friend" really cares about what happens in your life. To demand and offer intimacy in the same action can be a danger and a disappointment as these moments become a part of continuous digital feed thrown out to be consumed or ignored by the masses. 

So, right this minute, take a breath and stop all of the liking/posting/tweeting/retweeting/regramming and any other sharing you're tempted to do after the latest celebrity death. Got some poetry you're itching to use on this monumental occasion - then keep it to yourself and save it for the eulogy of a loved one you actually know. If you're into prayer, then pray for Robin Williams' family and friends as they grieve for their loved one who has departed this earth too soon. Watch his movies and thank him for the moments of joy he brought to your life. Even better, imagine if Robin Williams was your father or your brother or your husband or your son or your friend and needed help. Stop posting and, instead, volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline or become aware of those around you in distress and try your best to help them.

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