I can be uncharitable. Suspicious and cynical. So sometimes I think the worst of people’s motivations. That at least partly explains my reaction to social media when celebrities die.
Instinctively, I don’t like what happens. A big-name celebrity passes, and everyone (or so it feels) needs to make a statement on Facebook or Twitter. And here is the (uncharitable) reason why it bothers me: in many cases, these proclamations seem to be more about the person making them than about the person lost. At their worst, they aim to make this event, this death, into an advertisement for the individual speaking.
“I am a person who cares about an actor/writer/singer like this. That is part of my personality, I want you to know. I am connected to this person in this way, and I want everyone to know that.”
The death of a human being, a stranger, comes to serve the same purpose as listing a particular band in your About Me section.
I, of course, can’t prove that this motivates any of the statements people make. But, let’s be honest, a lot of social media is about this sort of personal branding. When that’s applied to a person’s death, I feel gross about it.
No need to tiptoe around it: The obvious prompt for these thoughts was Robin Williams’ recent death by apparent suicide. I don’t mean to paint every social media posting about this extremely troubling death as such a shallow personal brag — or even to say that any of them were entirely all about that. But when the news of a death like this hits Twitter (because that’s where it hits first these days), and people rush to Facebook-post “I remember watching ‘Mrs. Doubtfire'” or to repost a meme someone made with Robin Williams and a quote — at least part of it feels self-serving. And that grosses me out.
I’ve felt that about other celebrity deaths, as well — and have refrained from adding my own post for that reason (also, just because I did not feel impelled to post anything). But Robin Williams is a special case, I think. He was a huge star. A big Hollywood name for decades who starred in films that were huge parts of many people’s childhoods: “Hook,” “Mrs. Doubtfire.” He could exemplify the archetype of the sad clown — veering in his roles and even within his very expressive eyes from manic, comedic joy to what appeared to be, at least, deep sensitivity, if not deep inner sadness.
So, I get why people were affected. I was affected. And I’ve seen several social media posts and articles (and even some memes) with mature, intelligent and touching reflections on the actor’s life and death. Like I said, Robin Williams was a special case. The social media and journalistic response to his death seems to have continued past that initial outpouring of reaction posts into something more meaningful — even what could be a beneficial discussion of depression, and the mystery of what goes on inside another person’s mind, especially the mind of a suicide.
But those initial Facebook posts, by so many people, still bug me. They will probably bug me again the next time a well-known figure dies. But, now that I’ve plumbed the uncharitable side of me that bristles at such posts, let me be more understanding — or, at least, neutrally inquisitive.
Because, I am curious: Why must everyone (or so many, anyway) RUSH to Facebook and share their proclamation on a celebrity death? Why do people feel the need to make a social media statement?
Perhaps it is just because that is how we communicate now. We don’t transmit, one-to-one, we broadcast. In the past, we would still, of course, have discussed Robin Williams’ death. But we would have done it person-to- person. Talking about it on Facebook may happen simply because that is where we talk about everything.
Particularly the big things that everyone hears about.
Social media has so taken over the public sphere that anything that happens in the public sphere –a big event, a political result, a celebrity death — seems, instinctively to us, to happen within social media. It will be reported and discussed on social media; that is where the conversation will take place. So, to not comment on it in the social-media sphere would be to act as if it had not happened. Facebook is the giant room in which we all stand; who are you to ignore the elephant in the middle of it?
I do get that. And I’m no stranger to responding to that new sense of the world. Lord knows, I overuse Facebook and Twitter, too. Lord knows, I’m prone to make some snarky comment about national news because I feel like Twitter is the place to talk about it. Lord knows, I post jokey statuses to Facebook in an effort to garner “likes,” because it feels good to get likes.
But, again. It’s also how we communicate today. This is, frequently, how I interact with old and current friends: I post something I hope they’ll like. I comment on what they’ve said. And this all happens out in the social media courtyard, everyone shouting their conversations for the world to hear.
There was a time I felt weird about that. Writing on people’s Facebook walls, instead of simply emailing them privately, seemed bizarre at first, back in 2006 (!). I didn’t see why people did it. I suspected it was because the wall-message wasn’t really about the person being messaged, but about how the messenger wanted to appear to everyone else. I thought that was a bit icky.
But now I do it. Because it is what people do. And I’ve come to accept that posting on someone’s wall is a way to both communicate with that person and, yes, get some attention from the crowd. Maybe garner some likes. That both are happening at once doesn’t necessarily diminish either. Besides, it’s what everyone does.
I’m sure when people post their reactions to the deaths of Robin Williams and other beloved celebrities, they are similarly multitasking. As I said above, I doubt anyone’s Facebook post about the news was entirely about personal branding. But social media is a weird form of communication. It does double-duty in that way: every post goes out to everyone. You are broadcasting. And so, it is both about whatever you’re saying to one individual and about projecting yourself in front of the millions. To do so, even if only in part, over the death of a fellow human being, and a stranger — I think I’ll continue to feel strange about that.