I hear that before Twitter, nobody even cared when people died.
— Jonathan Shainin (@jonathanshainin) May 4, 2012
The past week we’ve learned of the deaths of the Beastie Boys co-founder and activist Adam Yauch and legendary children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, two widely respected public figures with generation-spanning followings. We’ve also experienced the resulting deluge of Internet tributes, broadcast most swiftly and simply through the medium of Twitter. Writing in Tablet Magazine about the late Yauch, David Samuels aptly summarizes what frequently occurs these days when a well-known person dies:
What’s the best thing about celebrity deaths? The million little masturbatory orgies they inspire under the oh-so-respectable blankets of news and analysis. When Billy Joel dies of a heart-attack-ack-ack, we’ll be on it—not because we care about the father of Alexis and ex-husband of Christie, but because we will have just been given a free pass to mourn our lost youths in Massapequa, Long Island, where we slow-danced to “Piano Man” at the prom. The phases of the competitive mourning cycle are all equally loathsome: shock at the loss of an icon, retelling of the heroic career, ironic distance to show that we are now grown-ups, etc.
During these times, it can seem like everyone in your Twitter feed is acting out this cycle at once, with all of the self-consciousness and deeply felt sorrow and homespun witticisms that can be mustered. There is a bludgeoning parade of RIPs—as if that term means anything—and quotations that will be repeated enough to empty them of any profundity.
Twitter is a funeral parlor’s side room for the cool kids. #RIPMCA
— Don Van Natta Jr. (@DVNJr) May 4, 2012
Media outlets are equally complicit, scrambling to link to all of their relevant material, assembling pages of remembrance, aggregating tweets from distraught fans and the celebrity’s longtime collaborator. The president might even issue a statement, if the celebrity is sufficiently mainstream.
In recent years, media theorists have seized on Walter J. Ong’s notion of “secondary orality,” which posits that new media reintroduces elements of oral culture similar to those found in traditional, preliterate societies. Secondary orality isn’t quite the same as exchanging news by the village well; instead, it’s “a more deliberate and self-conscious orality.” Nowhere is this more evident than on Twitter, where our speech is chatty, highly social, gossipy, ephemeral, and ironized within an inch of its life.
It’s a perfect representation of the Internet’s new tribalism, and when a celebrity dies, it’s raised to an insufferable level.
Between Yauch and Sendak, not a good week to be a Gen-Xer.
— Gal Beckerman (@galbeckerman) May 8, 2012
It makes for an all-day avalanche of mawkish sentiment and peacocking displays of authentic feeling (see: Samuels’ “competitive mourning cycle”). It reflects the worst side of what is often a great, and even useful and inspiring, medium. Not often have I found that I care what someone thinks of a dead celebrity—what Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” meant to your middle school experience or how Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are changed your childhood. Yet when a celebrity dies, we are all prompted to author our own mini-memoirs.
Much like in oral cultures, where there are no historical records except those passed down in stories, Twitter engenders a sense that if we don’t tweet it, it didn’t happen, we didn’t feel it. No one will know that we hurt, that this person mattered to us too. (And we can’t forget that too small endorphin boost that comes when our tweet, our little capsule of ego, is retweeted or favorited.) On a medium that rewards solipsism, there’s great pressure to be included in the digital shiva—at least until we return to our tweets about how much Mad Men paid for that Beatles song this week ($250k!).
One of Twitter’s flaws is that bad news is passed around with a velocity that can seem like eagerness, even if it’s actually melancholy
— Ben Greenman (@bengreenman) May 4, 2012
It’s not that I don’t care about these people, what they accomplished, or who they were (though the notion that we ever knew these celebrities as people, or had any sense of who they really were, has always seemed to be another one of the delusions driving celebrity culture). It’s that those feelings become denatured of meaning when aired in 140 characters, particularly when broadcast alongside links to articles about Bashar Assad’s latest massacre or the latest Girls think-piece. The delicate tissue of mourning, of negotiating one’s feelings about an artist or actor, deserves more time and circumspection; it should be shared in person with other human beings, somewhere where it doesn’t exist side-by-side with promoted tweets from Wal-Mart.
Of course, all this spleens amounts to little. This cycle will go on, becoming more cyclonic, more intensely confessional and, for some of us, unbearable. After all, grief is just another meme we pass around. So when the next wave of public mourning hits, I suppose it’ll be time to close the browser window and ignore the endless feed. Maybe I’ll think again about Maurice Sendak, who, in a much different context, once said, “I will be dead. I won’t give a shit.” Maybe I won’t. Either way, no one will know.
Must you ruin everything? RT @GwynethPaltrow: MCA forever.
— Lizzie O’Leary (@lizzieohreally) May 4, 2012
Jacob Silverman writes Jewcy’s ‘Culture Kvetch’ column, which runs twice a month.