Does Social Media Overdo Celebrity Death? Does a Salmon Swim in the Sea?

Cryingmen Robin Williams

For about a week this summer, my Facebook news feed was consumed by posts on just two subjects: people pouring ice water on their heads and lamentations on the death of Robin Williams.  At one point my wife said that someone should do an ice bucket challenge for Robin Williams and totally melt down the Internet.

This is not the place for an analysis of viral philanthropy, but the social media reaction to Robin Williams’ death, combined with the more restrained response to Joan Rivers’ departure, got me wondering: In an age of social media, what is the appropriate way to mourn a personality you know only from popular culture?

Not to be a cynic, but the deluge of online grief for Robin Williams came to seem weird after a while.  Of course it was sad that he’d died “too soon” and doubly sad that he’d exited by his own hand.  But really, would Robin Williams have been 1% as sad if you’d been the one who killed yourself? The one-sidedness of the relationship between celebrity and mourner is what seems so out-of-kilter.

This is not to say this is only 21st Century phenomenon. The 1926 funeral of Rudolph Valentino was an early example of mass hysteria for a celebrity, and we all remember how Princess Diana’s  death nearly brought down the monarchy. So by historical standards, the Facebook outpouring for Robin Williams was not unique.

Certainly I understand that Robin Williams and Joan Rivers actually did seem like our friends, because they came into our living rooms on TV.  There’s a special intimacy we feel with the people we see on TV.  Sometimes we think we know them — but more often than not, as was the case with Robin Williams, it turns out we don’t know them at all.

Given the outsize role that celebrities play in our cultural imagination, I would never argue that the feelings we experience when they die are not legitimate or valid.  But I would caution that over-mourning on social media can come to seem — how to put it? — um, self-indulgent.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts about how we should conduct ourselves on social media when a TV celebrity dies.

  • Don’t be a jerk.  Don’t post nasty comments about the recently departed. That’s basic human decency.  The snarky comments about Robin Williams temporarily drove his daughter off Twitter — which shows, once again, that the Internet is always on the verge of being overrun by the morally impaired.
  • If you snooze you lose.  If you don’t have anything to say in the first five or six hours after a celebrity dies, don’t pile on after that.  It’s almost impossible at that point to say anything interesting or non-repetitive.
  • Personalizing – sometimes OK, sometimes not.  If you want to post a photo of yourself with said celebrity in happier times, that’s fine, especially on Thursdays when it can also count as a “Throw-Back Thursday” post.  Less interesting are anecdotes about how you used to watch him/her on TV when you were a little tyke and how he/she changed your life.
  • One post per celebrity death.  If you post your personal reminiscence on Day One, don’t follow-up with a link to a New York Times “appreciation” on Day Two and a YouTube clip reel on Day Three.  Enough is enough.
  • Keep a sense of proportion.  Don’t act more bereft than you did when your Uncle Al died.  Don’t publicly rend your garments.   Don’t be sadder than you’d be if the President of the United States suddenly died.
  • Don’t troll for “likes” and retweets.  We’re all guilty of this from time to time, but it seems a little unseemly to do it over someone else’s corpse.
  • Don’t act like a bigger fan than you actually were.  Am I the only one to be surprised that Robin Williams turned out to be such a beloved figure?  On the day before he died, I doubt he would have been in a list of 50 most beloved TV and film personalities (according to this IMBD list, he was the word’s 64th most beloved celebrity, in between Tim Allen and Kevin Spacey).  The next day?  There’s a collective hole in our heart, according to Facebook, and we can’t imagine a world without him.
  • Don’t post for the sake of posting — especially if you don’t have anything to add to the conversation.  As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have anything interesting to say about the dearly departed, don’t say it on Facebook.

Look, I know we all have these feelings we just want to let out, but give it a rest on Facebook. I don’t like being turned in to a curmudgeon — but after about the 100th post about Robin Williams, my genial nature started to curdle.   Before the next TV star heads for the pearly gates, let’s try to develop a little online grief restraint.

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1 comment
  1. Frank said:

    Great write up ! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on such a sensitive subject.

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