A tweet posted this morning noted that with the death of actress Lauren Bacall yesterday at 89, all of the icons mentioned in Madonna’s 1990 HIT “Vogue” are now deceased. I marveled at the vacuousness of this milestone, and the compulsion to pile on factoids to an ever-growing, crowd-sourced obituary. Maybe (hopefully) I misread the post’s tone, and it was in fact a cynical joke, serving up a bit of trivia to emphasize how trivial death can feel in the age of social media.
The day before, I went online in the evening, after hours of having been Internet-free, and learned in a rush of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide. Then I learned how many people I follow were huge devotees of his—fans whose depths of fandom I had never before suspected. Have I been blind to their passions? Perhaps it was a thing too sacred for them to even utter? On Facebook and Twitter, their tributes streamed endlessly.
I offer my condolences to Williams’ friends and family, but I cannot for the life of me summon up the public, almost performative grief others seem to access so readily. I ask myself, besides my own friends and family, whose death would so move me to such a widespread declaration of emotion? Has social media so hardened me? Or am I rejecting the “all-day avalanche of mawkish sentiment and peacocking displays of authentic feeling” that Jacob Silverman observed two years ago following the deaths of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch and children’s writer Maurice Sendak.
In the New York Times today, Jonathan Mahler writes of the Twitter phenomenon of collective mourning that sets in immediately when a celebrity dies. The writer and radio host Kurt Andersen suggests that mourning now is “a more intense communal experience of these events than existed before.”
To me, it’s the exact opposite. The social mourning experience is entirely diffuse. It is atomized. It is a string of words, limited in number, devoid of depth, perhaps because the tweets strain so to achieve just that. It’s the difference between someone writing in a text message and someone crying in anguish, asking you for comfort.
In 1992 I went to a funeral of a young teenager. Besides his immediate family, I knew nobody there. The boy was modern Orthodox, the funeral was traditional. I wept openly. I was not the only one to do so. People I didn’t know embraced me and we grieved communally. It was, to use Andersen’s word, “intense.” It was also cathartic but only briefly, as our grief did not conclude as soon as the day waned. There were, as Billy Crystal tweeted regarding his friend Robin Williams, “no words.”
Thankfully, there were also no computers.