Everyone is an obituary writer these days, says the New York Times, in a poignant statement about the viral reaction to the death of Robin Williams.
My first reaction after hearing Robin Williams had died was to grab my phone. I typed his name into Google, hastily attempting to find out whether or not it was true. Stories flashed through my head: recollections of celebrity deaths turning out to be hoaxes, vague memories of an interview on Ellen reminding me that he’d had heart surgery sometime not that long ago. This was around 11pm Monday evening, there were two news articles available from outlets I didn’t recognise and his Wikipedia page still lacked an update. There was still space for doubt.
Then along came Twitter.
Within minutes of the news breaking, the legion of Robin Williams fans, friends and peers, were expressing their shock and grief, collating their admiration and loss, their memories, through photos, favourite clips and quotes tweeted in 150 characters or less. As the New York Times put it, social media became an ‘electronic scrapbook’ that transformed whole sites and feeds into memorials full of stand-up routines, exceptional performances, hilarious interviews.
“I was just gobsmacked”. Real life Good Morning Vietnam DJ, Adrian Cronauer, reacts to news of Robin Williams’ death: https://t.co/SL18qJP2f5
— BBC Radio 5 live (@bbc5live) August 12, 2014
A sense of the grand scale of the social media obituary became startlingly apparent. When Michael Jackson died five years ago, I had the same reaction to double check via social media. Yet despite the widespread outpourings of grief, I remember far fewer photos and far more blue hyperlinks. I remember it trending but most of my memories are of hard copy print articles and televised film clips. Twitter didn’t condense into an extended eulogy. Plus, since entities like Buzzfeed hadn’t yet hit their heyday, the listicle memorials were almost absent.
Tributes today involve constant updates on Williams’ family, the nature of his death and has seen #RIPRobinWilliams trending worldwide. Tweets from accounts like Sesame Street, The Academy Awards and Steve Carell have been retweeted, favourited and shared by thousands of people across the globe and hundreds of web articles have sprung up, including nearly thirty on Buzzfeed alone. Of course, not all public expressions have been positive, as illustrated by Zelda Williams’ forced retirement Twitter after internet trolls posted a photoshopped image of her dead father to her feed. Yet even as further details emerge about his passing, people have been looking back at Williams’ own digital channels from his Twitter to his Instagram, including one of him and his daughter Zelda as a child. Not only are social media users turning their feeds into spaces of grief, but they’re using the same means to investigate, attempting to piece together clues and to make sense of the loss by rereading recent posts. This was something also witnessed, to a lesser extent, during reports of Peaches Geldof’s death where many noted her last tweet was of her and her mother, who also died of an overdose.
So what is social media doing to our methods of mourning? It seems to be making it collective in a way unprecedented before now. Saying this, writers such as Richard Powers predicted this cultural shift, his cynical vision of the future anticipating millennial and post-millenial digitalisation to the point where the virtually extended self is intrinsic to any kind of social interaction, including the literal ‘sharing’ of grief. Some might believe that this level of grief only applies to lives as large as Robin Williams, public icons whose existence was itself compiled from every form of contemporary medium available. This simply is no longer the case, whilst Robin Williams has gone global, almost everyone will probably know someone on his or her social network who have lost a loved one and who will publically remember that person. Grief, even small scale, is now something more and more are comfortable with sharing amongst their extended networks. Perhaps it does not have the same ‘intense communal experience’ that Kurt Andersen describes in relation to the death of someone famous, but it does happen and a new etiquette of social grief is evolving into something concrete.
Academy tribute to Robin Williams “comes very, very close” to crossing the line https://t.co/ueTsJiV1uu
— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) August 14, 2014
Perhaps this is social media at its worst as suggested by Politico blogger, Dylan Byers. Or perhaps this is just the next step in the evolution of our social lives and deaths. Sharing allows us to enter into a community of loss, to search and find solace, to show solidarity or provide it for those closer to the epicentre of grief. There are no ‘right ways’ to mourn, and perhaps the semi-public space of social media is not the ideal place for private communication with the dead. But it does create instant access to a support network and a virtual memory that is never more than a click away.