Why Twitter grief deserves respect
Published 11/05/2012 | 13:06
When a celebrity dies, social media websites are awash with grieving fans. Not a fan? Then leave them be, says Shane Richmond.
Have you ever seen a funeral procession go past and felt the urge to shout abuse? Perhaps something mild such as "I've never heard of him!" or "He was rubbish!". No, me neither.
And yet on social networks there are some who can't resist heckling people for paying their respects to someone who has died. The last week has seen two notable deaths: author and illustrator Maurice Sendak and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. One wrote several much-loved children's books and the other was responsible for a series of influential and critically acclaimed albums.
In both cases, after the usual period of wondering whether this was another of Twitter's recurrent celebrity death hoaxes, the RIP tweets came en masse. Amid those was the occasional tweet from someone saying they'd never heard of the deceased or didn't like him or just wanted everyone to stop expressing sadness about the death of a stranger.
The level of grief involved when a celebrity dies is clearly of a different magnitude to the death of a loved one. It is grief, nevertheless, and intruding on it is disrespectful, even if it isn't anywhere near as disrespectful as shouting at a passing hearse.
When somebody touches your life in a positive way, whether by writing a book or recording an album, it is natural to be a little sad to hear that they have died. If they've touched your life in a more significant way - perhaps you saw them play live dozens of times over the years, or associate their book with a long-dead relative - then you might be sadder still.
In this age of social media, you'll probably share that sadness on Twitter or Facebook. What right does anyone else have to judge whether your sadness is excessive or misplaced?
When Fabrice Muamba, the 24-year-old Bolton footballer, collapsed on the pitch during a match against Tottenham in March, Twitter was quickly aflame with worry. "Pray for Muamba" was a phrase shared across the social network as fans feared for the midfielder who was perilously close to death in the most public of circumstances.
Even so, the Manchester United fanzine Red Issue chose to dub these people "grief junkies" on a Private Eye-style front page that mocked concerned Twitter users. A spokesman for the fanzine said: "You see it more and more. Whenever celebrities become unstuck it's a big issue while there are people being killed in Syria and Afghanistan who are not worth a mention."
The spokesman accused people of tweeting "fake sentiments", as if he would somehow be able to know whose feelings were genuine and whose weren't.
Should Manchester United fail to win the Premier League title this weekend and thus end the season without a single trophy, I'm sure that Red Issue will remind fans that their suffering is nothing compared with that of the people of Syria. But perhaps not.
It is a common theme among those who would seek to police other people's emotions to claim that they are feeling too sad about something trivial and not sad enough about something important. But being sad about one thing, such as your team failing to win a single trophy despite being one of the richest football clubs on the planet, does not mean that you cannot also be sad about any number of other things.
I suspect that the problem is one that frequently arises with social media: people mistake a series of small, independent actions for some kind of collective, organised campaign. Thus a group of people each tweeting that an article has upset them become "a heavily orchestrated internet campaign" to those who don't understand the technology.
Likewise, when a lot of people tweet "RIP" in memory of a recently deceased celebrity, the stream of tweets can quickly start to look like a campaign. It's as if a funeral parade had suddenly formed outside your window. If you don't know the person who has died then the urge to ask what all the fuss is about must be hard to resist.
Still, resist you should. Do you really need to be the person standing outside the virtual memorial service shouting abuse?