Earlier this year when Whitney Houston died, I was so shocked that I went on Twitter and expressed my grief. What I said—“No Whitney noooooo!!!”—wasn’t eloquent by any means and certainly didn’t contribute anything to the conversation about the singer’s life, death, and legacy she left behind. Instead, what I wrote, like so much of what everyone puts on the Internet, was about me. I was upset. My life felt shorter. I felt that loss, and I wanted the world to know I cared.
I firmly believe that what we post on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, or whatever public forum we choose should contribute to the global conversation in some way. As such, I’m not proud of that tweet. It was a knee-jerk reaction, and, honestly, who cares what I thought? That I was sad Whitney Houston died is about as interesting to someone else as what I had for lunch or if I missed the bus. I don’t tweet about that stuff, so why this?
If last week’s two most notable pop-culture deaths—The Band’s Levon Helm and American Bandstand host and the world’s oldest teenager Dick Clark—were any indication, though, a lot of us seem to want the world to know we care when someone dies. Online mourning has become a meme to itself, kicking off with millions of obligatory “R.I.P. Dick Clark” tweets, turning quickly into a quest for the funniest quip about the recently deceased, and then melding seamlessly into the inevitable “kids these days don’t know who Dick Clark is” round-up.
Registering a measure of public sadness about a public figure’s death can be cathartic, but it can also be futile. While a tweet about your favorite Band song or the time your parents let you stay up late for the first time at New Year’s can be touching and apt, a perfunctory “R.I.P.” or “so I see Dick Clark died” tweet feels self-congratulatory. It says, “See? I know what’s going on. I keep up. This registered on my emotional radar, and this tweet lets you know that I have thoughts and feelings, albeit not very deep ones on this matter.” Like so much personal blogging, tweeting, and Tumblr-ing, it says, “I’m here. I exist. I feel.” Online participation for some people feels almost obligatory, as if not contributing to the echo chamber that is the web means that they’ll be lost, that their voices won’t be heard. As Pete Holmes points out on his excellent comedy album Impregnated With Wonder, in lieu of Facebook and Twitter, we could all just subscribe to a service that, every 30 minutes, texts us, “You’re not alone. You’re here. People care about you.”
As we get deeper into the Internet age, and in particular the Twitter age, it’s getting easier to become less thoughtful. One-liners fly out into the ether and then disappear forever. For some, every single thing they do is broadcast online. Mourning, on the other hand, is traditionally a deeply private practice. If a loved one or family member dies, you feel a pain that only you know. Taking to Facebook or Twitter to express that kind of hurt seems trite, almost like a slight to the deceased. If you really cared that much, would you be able to sum up your thoughts in 140 characters, or with a sad face emoticon? Does it matter what other people thought about exactly how sad you really were? Mourning, most times, is about knowing where you stood in relation to the deceased, and reaffirming your place among the living.
Dick Clark, Levon Helm, and Whitney Houston were public figures, so mourning them is a little different than mourning a grandma. With celebrities, we read lengthy obituaries. We spend an afternoon watching our favorite old videos on YouTube or streaming tracks on Spotify. If we really care, we watch their funerals on CNN one Saturday morning, and go to bed a little sadder for a couple of days.
It’s okay to care about people who mattered to you, even if they’re famous. (It’s even okay to make jokes about them. For a lot of people, that’s the ultimate memorial.) What’s not okay is not doing justice to the ways they touched our lives, or thinly pretending—and this is a fault of much online content—that something that didn’t really matter to us did, in fact, matter a lot. A perfunctory R.I.P. is the Internet equivalent of “That blows, man.” It doesn’t do justice to who that person was, and it certainly doesn’t do justice to who you are as a thoughtful, caring human being.
The Internet can get a bad rap for being a wasteland of dumb content and dick shots, all of which it has in spades. What it also has, though, is potential. With its unlimited capacity and nearly unlimited number of contributors, the Internet has the ability to spin out in a variety of different directions. Sure, it can go brusque and glib, and that works sometimes. It can also spark real conversation or host excellent essay work and heartfelt rememembrances of those we’ve lost. What we have to figure out as content producers—and any one of us with a Facebook or Twitter account is a content producer—is what kind of message we want to put out into the ether. It’s not easy to do, especially when dealing with something as emotional as death and mourning, but it’s that modicum of thought that can mark the difference between a tribute and a shrug.