I first learned of Robin Williams’ death on Twitter. On my computer monitor, I saw two “RIP Robin Williams” posts mixed in with all the other tweets. Seconds later, a few more RIPs. Then my Twitter stream completely transformed. Everyone I follow posted a version of RIP, but now with hashtags. #RIPRobinWilliams. #MyCaptain. #OCaptainMyCaptain. Next came retweeted links to CNN.com and USAToday.com.
Within the hour, nine of the Top 10 trending topics on Twitter were related to Robin Williams. I started to see quotes and screengrabs from Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society, and the speed at which I watched people posting video clips and photos left me with an odd sense that rather than sharing in a collective sense of grief, they were simply rushing to share a fresh micro-bit of the news.
The outpouring started to seem almost competitive. Who could find the rarest photo? The most apt movie quote? The best quip to sum up a man’s entire life in 122 characters? (That’s 140 minus 17 characters plus a space for #RIPRobinWilliams.)
Now more than ever, we are using social media and online forums to connect with each other during difficult times. When tragedy strikes, many of us are more likely to express our sadness on Facebook than in person or even on the phone. We hear of the tragedy on social media, and we react in the appropriate way for that medium; we see the bad news, we share the bad news—or we like or retweet or favorite—and then we move on to the next story.
My observation is that the convenience of one-click condolences might be making the grieving process more difficult for those experiencing loss.
Two weeks ago, I lost a friend—a journalist and author, who was just starting a new consulting venture with his lovely wife. It was a sudden, horrible loss. He was something of a public figure, so I expected to see a certain amount of broadcasting throughout social media. The same pattern emerged as with Williams: First the RIPs, then the hashtags, then links to news stories and personal photos. It felt as though in tweeting about what happened and posting photos on Facebook, the conversation was less about remembering him and more about an eagerness to share the news. What’s worse, those who didn’t know him or that he’d just passed were including his Twitter handle in the messages, as though he was still there to read responses.
Using social media to broadcast the news of a tragedy is a good way to help inform a community, but one-click condolences don’t help people deal with loss. In fact, it accelerates a social norm that would otherwise take several weeks: sending heartfelt letters, sharing memories in person, even showing support by spending a few hours together to help sort paperwork or mail.
I would never argue that digital platforms aren’t enormously helpful in times of crisis. For instance, when the 2010 earthquake ravaged Haiti, a Facebook page brought the community together, providing an outlet for grief and for survival. Modern Loss is a brilliant site and social community offering candid conversations about death. These platforms are about remembering, coping, and starting again. But they’re rare effective examples of how we use social media to help those who’ve been left behind.