On the transience of online grief
Roger Ebert had written a post a few months ago lamenting the transient expressions of grief and sympathy on the internet upon someone’s passing. He cited the example of one of his close friends passing away. Ebert mourned him for days. That grief manifested in the memories he shared on Twitter and Facebook. There was a period of brooding withdrawal as befits real grief. His followers did respond initially with murmurs of sadness and the customary “RIP”s. After a few days they asked him to move on and say something interesting about movies.
I was touched by Ebert’s concern for his friend and it did seem stark that the well-wishers who joined in to express their condolences with a tweet or two switched context immediately after to trill about new clothes, award shows or movies.
(This is all I remember from the post. I can’t seem to find it and I’ll be grateful if someone could point me to it)
But it did get me thinking of the struggle between the expression of genuine sentiment and what might be construed as lip-service. Ebert believes expressions of grief online are mostly the latter. That’s too cynical for me. The internet suffers from being a noisy, overcrowded arena of communication where it’s difficult to judge if the message and messenger are genuine. I went off on a limb about Steve Jobs’ death because I admired the man. I tweeted about Whitney Houston’s death because I genuinely thought of her (and still do) as a powerhouse talent, irrespective of her struggles towards the end. I meant those words, even if they were a paltry 140 characters unlike the thousands I dedicated to Jobs. In Houston’s case I didn’t feel the need to go on, but I didn’t feel insincere doing so either. I wasn’t making mental comparisons to Jobs’ eulogy or feeling particularly scumbag-y as a result.
Surely the length and involvement of your mourning are a function of how much you liked the person. Traditionally the cues for the sincerity of a sentiment lie in its tone and to some extent, in that of its messenger. Both are absent on the internet. Ebert’s well-wishers wouldn’t even come close in terms of his personal grief at the loss of a friend, but the optimist in me thinks that it mattered they took the time to sympathize. Perhaps they didn’t *really* mean it. It may be that their intent was to console and share a sense of solidarity in doing so rather than mourn. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, says the optimist.
But I won’t allow my optimist to simply run away with matters. I have a pessimist in me too. He ascribes insincerity to two motives; the fear of exclusion and plain old publicity. The fear of exclusion pertains to the risk of appearing unsympathetic, heartless and thus, isolated. Or the risk of not conforming to the ideals of a group. Simply typing in a few words and hitting “Send” or “Update” hardly seems like the kind of thing to occupy you for hours, physically or mentally. Why not “there there” along with the rest of these chaps and get on with life in the next tweet?
Secondly, the alarming trend on Twitter of sending celebrities prematurely to their graves points to the presence of blatant insincerity. The need to cash in by creating bubbles.
Thanks to this pessimism I peruse tweets containing the ominous “RIP” for something other than mere awareness of the tragic event. “RIP Whitney Houston” just doesn’t cut it for Mr. Pessimism. Say something about why you liked her, or what her death means to you.
The Optimist on the other hand, thinks even that little, possibly insincere gesture has some sanctity. That smidgeon of a tweet or update is permanent in its intent, however dubious. It will eventually get washed away in a sea of banal conversations but never *really* go away. It will just be less visible. It will still represent a tiny little part of your day that you dedicated to commemorating a sad event in someone’s life or for someone’s sake.
And that’s got to count for something, right?