I type the following into Twitter:
So sorry to hear about Philip Seymour Hoffman. One of my favourite actors. RIP.
It's awful news, a life extinguished by addiction. And it's important that my Twitter followers know this has affected me personally. It helps to build my brand. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a complex actor, with an acclaimed and off-kilter body of work. Grieving for him shows that I am not only sensitive, but I have some good taste, too. For my social media strategy, it's the most on-target bereavement since Lou Reed. Every cloud...
Outsized reaction to celebrity death is not a new thing, it even has its own entry on Wikipedia: Mourning sickness. Its zenith in this country was the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, a period in our history during which we behaved so peculiarly that we still can't look each other in the eye whilst talking about it. A madness took us, like a Bacchanalian orgy, only with less orifice filling and more commemorative crockery.
Having been previously ambivalent to the Queen of Our Hearts, I found myself signing a condolence book. In the waiting room of a sexual health clinic in Manchester, before having a genital wart burnt off. Nearly seventeen years later, and I still can't recognise that as something I would do. The take-outs from this story are a) Wash your hands after prodding verrucas on your feet, kids. And b) Famous people dying makes us act weird.
To measure social network behaviours against real life norms is incongruous. Just because you wouldn't walk into a busy pub and announce that you feel sad about a celebrity's death doesn't automatically mean that you're a crackpot for doing the equivalent online. There's a whole new paradigm for etiquette on social media: we've collectively decided that grief is currently permissible, and in the modern parlance, shareable.
King of the Grief Tweets is the one that breaks the news. Unless you can afford a web of morgue-based informants, you're probably not going to be the primary source, so prefixing a retweet with 'So sad!' or 'Shocked' is a good way of staking your claim. It's dark, but there's a thrill in being the first to share gruesome news. There's power in unveiling information that reminds us of our own mortality. In my own phone, almost the entire thread of text messages between my best friend and me is a sad list of recently deceased celebrities. We're in an ongoing competition to beat the other to the punch. It's the same compulsion that, on hearing of a notable death, sends a certain type of person scuttling to edit the Wikipedia entry.
We kid ourselves into thinking digital mourning is a modern mark of respect. It isn't. It's lassoing any semblance of an emotional reaction and sending it off to join the circus. No one cares. A tweet about Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't make him any less dead, nor does it ease the pain for the people who were actually close to him. Here is a sentence nobody will ever say: "I'm so sorry for your loss, but it may be of some comfort for you to learn that he was trending."
We attempt to deny our own insignificance by annexing ourselves onto something that seems important. We want our piece, for our name to be added to the permanent record of events. That picture you took of the Eiffel Tower? You'd find a thousand better ones in a second on Google Images. Then why bother? The need to say 'I was there!' That status you wrote about that dead celebrity? You'd find a thousand better-articulated tributes, from people with genuine connections. When I add my inane whimper, this moment in history wasn't just something that happened, it was something that happened to me.
We spend a lot of time cultivating our digital personas. Grieving online fills in a lot of blanks without much effort: If I tweet that I'm sad about Mandela, you'll know that I'm one of the good guys who thinks apartheid was a bad thing. If I throw in one of his famous quotes, you'll think that I read books, too. Using grief to imply values is far less uncouth/more couth than changing my Twitter bio to 'Erudite anti-racist'.
I delete the Tweet. I decide that the need to use a tragic death to convey something about myself is too transparent. The savvy followers that I hope to connect with would find it vulgar. I need to find a cultural moment to attach myself to in a more nuanced way. I start again:
Dylan Farrow situation undeniably disturbing, but trial by Twitter is ill-informed, hysterical and unhelpful. #restraintplease