This has happened often on Twitter: I think of Whitney Houston, Paul Walker, Philip Seymour Hoffman. People poured our their expressions of affection, gratitude, and grief — all for those whom they had never mentioned on Twitter until then. Why?
Well, death always does this to us, doesn’t it? When you hear that an old friend has died, even if you haven’t seen her in years and years, your memory draws up all the good times you had together: they appear before you enriched and intensified by the knowledge that they can no longer be added to. The story of your relationship takes vivid shape in light of its ending, as often happens also with stories we read.
But I think on Twitter that natural and probably universal experience gets amplified in the great cavern of social media. You tweet about Whitney Houston’s death in part because other people are tweeting about Whitney Houston’s death and you don’t want to seem cold or indifferent, and as the avalanche builds, it comes to seem that Whitney Houston was of great importance to a great many people — even though most of them hadn’t thought about her in fifteen years and wouldn’t have noticed if they never heard a song of hers again. Such are the effects of what Paul Ford and Matt Buchanan have called “peer-to-peer grieving”.
I’m reminded here of a brilliant piece by the playwright Bertolt Brecht called “Two Essays on Unprofessional Acting,” in which he comments:
One easily forgets that human education proceeds along highly theatrical lines. In a quite theatrical manner the child is taught how to behave; logical arguments only come later. When such-and-such occurs, it is told (or sees), one must laugh. It joins in when there is laughter, without knowing why; if asked why it is laughing it is wholly confused. In the same way it joins in shedding tears, not only weeping because the grown-ups do so but also feeling genuine sorrow. This can be seen at funerals, whose meaning escapes children entirely. These are theatrical events which form the character. The human being copies gestures, miming, tones of voice. And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.
To this we might add, “And tweeting arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from tweeting.”
And there's one more element worth noting: When someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies, at the height of his powers and of his fame, the grief that people express is distinctly different from that they express for a faded star like Whitney Houston. Since they have no recent encounters with her music, they cast their minds back to their own youth — which is of course lost. As Gerard Manley Hopkins said to the young girl weeping over a forest losing its leaves in autumn, “It is Margaret you mourn for”.
All this said, I wonder if it might not be useful for all of us to spend some time thinking about those artists and musicians and writers and actors and thinkers whose death would — we know now, while they’re still here, without any crowdsourced lamentation — would really and truly be a loss to our lives. And then maybe tweet a line or two of gratitude for them before death forces our hand.