I hear that before Twitter, nobody even cared when people died.
— Jonathan Shainin (@jonathanshainin) May 4, 2012
The past week we’ve learned of the deaths of the Beastie Boys co-founder and activist Adam Yauch and legendary children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, two widely respected public figures with generation-spanning followings. We’ve also experienced the resulting deluge of Internet tributes, broadcast most swiftly and simply through the medium of Twitter. Writing in Tablet Magazine about the late Yauch, literary editor David Samuels aptly summarizes what frequently occurs these days when a well-known person dies:
What’s the best thing about celebrity deaths? The million little masturbatory orgies they inspire under the oh-so-respectable blankets of news and analysis. When Billy Joel dies of a heart-attack-ack-ack, we’ll be on it—not because we care about the father of Alexis and ex-husband of Christie, but because we will have just been given a free pass to mourn our lost youths in Massapequa, Long Island, where we slow-danced to “Piano Man” at the prom. The phases of the competitive mourning cycle are all equally loathsome: shock at the loss of an icon, retelling of the heroic career, ironic distance to show that we are now grown-ups, etc.
During these times, it can seem like everyone in your Twitter feed is acting out this cycle at once, with all of the self-consciousness and deeply felt sorrow and homespun witticisms that can be mustered. There is a bludgeoning parade of RIPs—as if that term means anything—and quotations that will be repeated enough to empty them of any profundity.