People aren’t grieving when retweeting celebrity comments

I’ve been reading about something called Celebrity Death Twitter Harvest, or the tendency for people to express collective sadness on social media when someone famous dies.

The recent death of Dad’s Army star Clive Dunn led The Guardian to ask today why celebs (or anyone who tweets) mark the passing of someone famous with such a tribute. Well, it contributes to the conversation taking place in the Twittersphere for a start. And it’s easier than buying flowers.

I’ve always thought some of the tweets seem insincere, but it doesn’t stop me from doing it to acknowledge the death of someone who has made an impact on my life. And doesn’t this go with the territory?

I think The Guardian is wrong when it states:

“It is often suggested that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, altered the nature of collective grief, rendering it suddenly acceptable to line the streets, send flowers and, most importantly, weep publicly at the death of someone you did not actually know. Fifteen years on, and nowhere is collective grief more manifest than on Twitter, where the announcement of the passing of any well-known name is inevitably met by a flurry of re-tweets, hashtags and sadface emoticons.”

It goes on to give examples, with Katie Price reacting to the death of Whitney Houston in February as a classic.

This isn’t collective grief in the way I understand it. Price’s comment was re-tweeted 143 times, but this doesn’t mean that 143 people are grieving with her, does it? It doesn’t even mean that Price is grieving. Grief is not something that is well expressed in these cases. It is an overwhelming, crushing feeling that can render you helpless and last far longer than 140 characters.

In many cases, tweeting ‘RIP Clive Dunn’ is a reflex acknowledgement of the passing of someone they knew and liked. It will often be retweeted in the absence of anything more interesting to say at that exact moment. And it can come from ‘wanting to belong’ that the death of Diana seemed to draw the media’s attention to, but which was not a collective outpouring of grief either.

Twitter has made such behaviour easier, normal even. But it’s not grieving. It’s more of a collective sigh before getting on the bus home. I’ve been talking about Twitter to colleagues, explaining the potential it has to provide vivid insight into the views of key stakeholders who are important to our organisation.

But it can also provide easy copy for writers who present this commentary as something genuine when it is often trying to generate a reaction. In Twitter, as if life, there’s room for all kinds of comments. That’s good news, because there’s more interesting things happening than silly ‘grieving’ celebs.

3 thoughts on “People aren’t grieving when retweeting celebrity comments

  1. Hey Ben, I enjoyed your post, but was also amused by interesting the collection of tags (and celebrities) that followed!

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