When evaluating both sides of the relatively common heated ‘debate’ over whether the internet/social media/et al are ‘destroying’ something [where ‘something’ is usually intimacy, journalism, education, sensory perception, human attention span, meaningful relationships, sensitivity] the immediacy with which information can be conveyed through online channels is generally like a ‘point’ in the internet’s favor. Yet the process by which people use social media channels to collectively grieve a celebrity illuminates something regarding its facility for enforcing insincerity.
It progresses as follows: Via Twitter you receive a ‘link’, either from a relevant gossip, information or culture news site that you ‘follow’ or from an acquaintance that has ‘RT’-ed that link, informing you that [celebrity popular during a vague and nostalgic point in your childhood] has passed away. You do not have any particular reaction to this; you might feel a brief moment of wistfulness or simply assume the death was a natural part of the cycle of life as the celebrity was particularly aged/known to be ill/known to have a high-risk lifestyle/[some other reason why the death is not immensely shocking].
You may even see the tweet and think ‘who is that again’ before returning to watching YouTubes or reading the article about Wikileaks that you were reading. You feel that it is voyeuristic or invasive to consume blogs about the death of someone of whom you were not at all aware or in whom you were not enormously interested while that person was living.
In approx. 20 more minutes you return to browsing your Twitter feed and see several more links about the deceased person, noting that the deceased person’s death appeared to be remarkable to many of your acquaintances. At this point you might decide to click on one of the links being ‘RT’-ed out of curiosity, e.g. ‘I would like to find out why many people appear personally touched by the death of this person,’ or ‘I would like to read about who this person was because I didn’t know/forgot’ or ‘everyone seems sad, so I feel guilty being ignorant.’
Your feed will continue to be populated with the deceased person’s most famous quotes, YouTubes of memorable moments in the person’s career, or 140-character conveyances about what that person/that person’s work meant to the individual who is commemorating them by Tweeting. You observe this with curiosity and some compassion, a public funeral ceremony for a stranger in which you are not participating, and feel increasingly uncomfortable.
There are several reasons why you feel uncomfortable: Grief is a private process for many people and you would not so easily air it on the part of someone you did not know. It’s like maybe ‘difficult’ or embarrassing to watch people do. Simultaneously you accept that numerous individuals felt a connection to the deceased person and his/her work and respect the publication of their sentiment, but feel left out because you ‘can’t relate’, or something. You continue to feel guilty for not participating in the ceremonial tweeting.
In another couple of hours your Twitter feed is ‘consumed’ by responses, links and RTs regarding the deceased celebrity. Several of your Facebook friends, considered to be more real ‘friends’ than your Twitter friends, have posted ‘tributes’ on their Facebook walls. You did not know that the deceased celebrity had so many fans. You feel like you must have missed something culturally important and are stupid. You feel like you are the only one not tweeting about the deceased celebrity and that all your friends must think you are a heartless jerk or culturally stupid.
You continue to endure a strange blend of guilt and detachment. You continue to feel as if your resolute refusal to make a social media expression of mourning for someone of whom you had very little awareness before and would feel insincere about mourning is wrong. You feel like you are walking past an orphan and everyone else is giving her money but you.
Overwhelmed by ‘death vibes’ you use the internet to do further research about the deceased and review his or her memorable career moments until you find something that he or she did that you were aware of or remember or liked. Suddenly a very small memory that had been largely an unnoticed stitch in the fabric of your hindsight becomes extremely sentimental as you try to realize that you, too, shared an attachment to the dead celebrity or at least have produced enough evidence to qualify you to participate in the public grief sentiment wave.
Anxiously you put a link to something in your Twitter feed. You feel insincere. Someone you are friends with on Facebook because you were friends in elementary school but today they are wildly stupid and post chain letter spam and ‘Fishville’ updates posts a childish poem they wrote about the deceased celebrity, possibly accompanied by an awkwardly assembled memorial YouTube video that has received a million hits. Seven people have clicked ‘like’. You click ‘like.’