Issues & Questions: Are we wrong to mourn Bowie on social media?

The outpouring of grief on Twitter and Facebook generates a good deal of cynicism

People take a selfie by floral tributes in front of James Cochran’s mural of David Bowie in Brixton, south London,  two days after the announcement of Bowie’s death. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

People take a selfie by floral tributes in front of James Cochran’s mural of David Bowie in Brixton, south London, two days after the announcement of Bowie’s death. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

 

In response to the news of David Bowie’s death last Monday, millions of people took to Twitter and Facebook to express their sadness and grief. There was a palpable sense of disbelief, as if it couldn’t be reconciled with the man or the icon.

Such a death, it seems, demands response, and social media exists to facilitate that impulse. Days later, with the death of Alan Rickman, the process was repeated, albeit on a lesser scale.

Writing in the New Yorker after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman in early 2014, Irish writer Mark O’Connell explored this phenomenon in an exceptionally perceptive essay.

“With the death of someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Lou Reed or Seamus Heaney – someone who has left an impression on many, many people – there is a quick and radical convergence of focus,” wrote O’Connell. “For a short time, Twitter becomes a coherent experience: it becomes a sort of wake. A wake is attended by people acquainted with the deceased, and a celebrity is, in a sense, a mutual acquaintance we hold in common with the world.”

Of course, that urge to say things when there is nothing to be said is one of the hallmarks of a wake. The awkward expressions of sympathy, the failing words, the platitudes worn to a meaningless sound through repetition. There can be no words of comfort, but we pour them out any way. To not do so would be worse.

Certainly, the public nature of social media is different from a funeral home or a church – it becomes more about the display of sympathy than the sympathy itself; it’s a signalling process vulnerable to accusations of self-importance and narcissism.

Predictably, there was no shortage of people eager to make those accusations. “So many people ‘crying’ or ‘in bits’ over Bowie. F**K YOU. You are not 10 – you are an adult. Man the f**k up and say something interesting,” went one prominent troll.

It’s easy to dismiss these critics as attention-seeking contrarians who thrive on an imagined sense of superiority, adopting a pose of refined rationality that precludes emotional attachment to anyone or anything they haven’t met in person. But they are also engaging in a form of signalling, of course, no less narcissistic than those they criticise.

There is an unavoidable friction between the outpouring of social media grief and the valid scepticism about the sincerity of that grief, a friction that is inherent to the form.

But fundamentally, the critics are ignoring a key element of the phenomenon. As O’Connell points out, our connection to any artist or celebrity or athlete or leader is a publicly shared one; thus, acknowledging a sense of loss at their death in public is entirely in keeping with the nature of the relationship.

We gather to hear their music or see their movies, and when they die, we now gather to say goodbye.