First Click: On the internet, everyone can watch you grieve

January 12th, 2016

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I wouldn’t have seen it coming myself, but it turns out the internet is actually pretty good at dealing with grief. When news of David Bowie’s death was announced yesterday, social media was awash with favorite songs, long forgotten interview clips, and — most touching of all — personal recollections from people whose lives had been changed by the “ginger, bonk-eyed, snaggle-toothed freak.” But despite the collective power of these tributes, some people just can’t stand idly by and watch hearty, honest feelings go unmolested.

British journalist Camilla Long tweeted her thoughts on the matter, saying: "So many people ‘crying’ or ‘in bits’ over Bowie. FUCK YOU. You are not ten - you are an adult. Man the fuck up and say something interesting." She later added that this had "NOTHING to do with Bowie," and that she was just annoyed at "the utter insincerity of social media grief, the odd mimicry and circle-jerkery of it."

These comments aren’t indefensible, but they are as trite, as smug, and as self-congratulatory as the ‘fake grief’ Long is lashing out at. There’s no rulebook on how to be sad, and although internet bandwagons can be aggravating, they’re not half as bad as contrarians who try to reframe public discourse in a way that just happens to make them seem discerning and high-minded. In Long’s view, it seems it’s only the people who don’t show their grief publicly who truly feel. The rest of are too feeble-minded to do anything more than ape what emotions are spelled out in viral tweets and image macros.

People do copy emotions, and that's just fine — that's just human

And it’s true, in a way. People do copy other peoples’ emotions and they do say things on social media just in order to have said something. But to be trite and clichéd myself for a second, this is part of what makes us human — what allows us to be more than lonely bubbles of consciousness floating in the void. Even Long herself can’t escape the impulse to reach out and find companionship with other minds. She later tweeted Christopher Hitchens’ take on the response to the death of Diana as "the authority on public grief," and despite her claim that "grief should be private," a quick look at her Twitter history shows that she’s succumbed to public mourning more than once. Steve Jobs and Joan Rivers both got a quick and respectful RIP, while Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 was met with the heartfelt and disarmingly direct response: "Listening to Earth Song. Weeping."

You see how unfair and unlikeable it is to judge other people’s grief?

The reassuring thing is, though, that these judgements don't really matter. Oh sure, people will carp and moan about artificial grief and search-engine-optimized-mourning the next time someone famous dies, but it won’t stop the people who care from caring. It won’t stop people from sharing whatever it is they thought was admirable or exciting or special about that person. And although some people might join in just for the sake of it or retweet something just because it's easy, that doesn’t diminish the sincerity of other peoples’ grief. And after all, if you really want to, you can just say nothing.

Five stories to start your day



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