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What I Learned from the Internet’s Mourning of Robin Williams

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
August 13, 2014

My day begins with reading The New York Times on my iPad. Early Tuesday morning, I was briefly confused to see that the top story was an “appraisal” of Robin Williams’ career.

Soon I understood. I went from confused to stunned. I sat in the early-morning dark and read the multiple stories The Times had produced. Then I went through my RSS reader, and eventually I logged on to Facebook and checked Twitter.

Williams, of course, was everywhere online, in all his many, many guises. By the time my workday started, I’d absorbed quite a bit of grief and appreciation, trivial remarks and deeply thoughtful comments, from official media sources, friends, acquaintances, celebrities, and strangers. Not to mention list after list after list.

On one hand, all this information overwhelmed me. On the other, it was curiously familiar: This is how the social-era Web processes, presents, and shapes our reactions to high-profile death.

It’s chaotic and contradictory. It can feel communal, like a digital memorial service or wake. Or it can feel banal, like a crowd-sourced version of one of those whipped-up special “tribute” issues of some celebrity magazine.

And it is, somehow, both disconcerting and comforting at once.

Listening to friends
For an avowed Facebook minimalist, it was an eye-opener that I genuinely appreciated my News Feed as a site for processing Williams’ death. Upon reflection, this seems obvious: Here, after all, the reactions were “curated” by friends.

Of course I’ve absorbed celebrity passings through this lens before, but this was different for a few reasons. I laughed at Mork & Mindy as a kid, and Williams has been a given ever since — sometimes for the worse (Patch Adams; Mrs. Doubtfire); sometimes for the better (The World According to Garp, Insomnia); but also in ways consistently surprising and fascinating (One Hour Photo, the famous interview with podcast host Marc Maron).

And more to the point, a lot of the people I’m friends with on Facebook are my generational peers. I wouldn’t expect, say, The Times, to dig up some classic and fleeting Mork & Mindy moment referencing Steve Martin’s white-hot “Excuuuuse me!” But a Facebook friend did:

(As my colleague Jason Gilbert has pointed out, the panoply of such probably-unauthorized Williams clips on YouTube (along with legit ones) have become a particularly useful zone of personal remembrance of beloved performers.)

Other references from friends formed an eclectic collection that totally resonated with me, even if it might not for anybody else — from long-ago nuggets like a clip from Popeye or the cover of Williams’ then-ubiquitous 1979 album Reality … What A Concept, all the way up to praise for his role in an episode of Louie.

Interspersed among these sparks of happy memories, other friends posted links to articles about, and personal reflections on, depression. In a more traditional media context, I probably would have skipped this material, writing it off as an opportunistic “take” on sad news. But here everything seemed sincere — a legitimate attempt to cope with larger issues that go beyond any individual passing. These are friends of mine posting and saying these things, after all.

RIP [insert name]
And yet, not everything about this contemporary form of mourning is quite so comfort-making. Frankly, I do not understand the compulsion to merely send a signal flare across social media to announce one’s acknowledgment of a death by tweeting “RIP [insert name here],” sometimes with a cookie-cutter appendage along the lines of “You will be missed,” sometimes without even that.

Something about that kind of tweet or status update seems depressingly pro forma to me — announcing acknowledgement of a death via minimal characters, let alone thought, feels like a tiny performance. It has more to do with announcing awareness of something sad than really dealing with something said.

The only thing that makes me more queasy is the increasingly inevitable roundup of such blurts, that happen to have been blurted by famous people, put together by media outlets as shareable lists. This practice seems to have become a staple of public mourning, but does anyone really find solace or value in it? Because, honestly, it gives me the creeps.

I’m sure such social media communiqués may be sincere, and can arguably humanize both subject and communicator — but they often feel obligatory, perfunctory. As if the expectation now is that it’s more important to get one’s grief on the record ASAP than to step back and reflect, even for an hour or two, before offering considered thoughts.

And even my Facebook experience was uneven. Social media being what it is, people kept standing up at this digital wake to say something completely unrelated to the mourning of the moment — with pictures of a recent pizza lunch, the announcement of someone’s new book, an artistic selfie, a reminder that World Elephant Day is upon us, and so on.

Didn’t these people realize there was a funeral going on?

Mediated mourning
Yet, ultimately, distracting as it may be, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. It’s not like the entire world can, or should, suddenly become undivided in its attention to any single piece of news, to the exclusion of the many other ways that life (for better and worse) marches on.

I can imagine making the argument — it wouldn’t be hard — that the social-media era on some level trivializes mourning, converting expressions of appreciation and grief into shallow verbiage at best, and clickbait at worst. So I understand why someone might find the social-media outpouring around Williams’ death “irksome.”

But I now think such arguments miss a deeper truth. Within the spigot-spew of Internet reaction to Williams’ passing, I found plenty of authentic value, which I appreciate, and which I would not have encountered any other way. I acknowledge the irritations, but I insist that, this time at least, they were outweighed.

It’s not, in other words, our modern tools that determine how we experience an event, tragic or otherwise. It’s us, and how we choose to use those tools, and what they give us. Sure, they can make us forget what’s important. But sometimes, we can use them to remember.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.