Trending Topics of Death

twitter-deadI’ll never forget where I was when I found out David Bowie had died. I was in bed. I’d just woken up and was checking the trending topics on Twitter to see what was going on in the world. There it was: David Bowie. I knew it could only be one of two things: a new album or he’d died. It was actually both, technically, but the trending topic was for the death of the Starman. What a bloody awful bit of news to read about when you’ve just woken up. Thanks, Twitter.

I was on the train when I found out that Prince had died. It was the end of a long day and I thought I’d have a look at what people were chatting about online. Twitter’s trending topics are normally filled with idiots from the Kardashian mob or their associates, but there he was: Prince. Again, it was either a new album or death. Turned out it was death. Well that sucked. What do you do when you hear something like that? The instinct is to tell someone, but you can’t really do that in a train carriage full of strangers. So I tweeted my disbelief:

Oh Jesus Christ. Prince. :(

What else can you say?

Why do we feel sad when a celebrity dies?

The death of a celebrity is a curious thing. We didn’t know them, but oftentimes they came into our lives in some shape or form. Those celebrities we treasure, like Prince or David Bowie, gave us something that made our lives better. With Prince and David Bowie, their deaths are shocking because they gave us something quantifiable, like incredible, original music, and with it came the emotion of experiencing that music coupled with an admiration for or awe of the creator.

It’s the charisma of the individual, shown to us through performance and the media, that takes the imagined relationship between us and them into new territory, to a place where we come to know and emotionally invest in the celebrity’s persona.

So I can rationalise the sadness I felt when David Bowie and Prince died. David Bowie’s death was all the more impactful because of the Blackstar album and the song Lazarus. It felt like a personal message. I sobbed a little bit. But whatever. It was extremely poignant.

I am, however, convinced that the way we hear about celebrity deaths today has greatly changed how we react to them.

The death list

How did we find out about a celebrity death before social media? It would be in the paper or on the evening news or a friend would tell you. It could still be extremely sad or shocking, but the response felt altogether more sombre. The way people reacted was different. I think this is for two reasons: 1. When a celebrity dies, social media becomes a place of mass hysteria, and 2. The Internet and social media have meant that the imagined relationship we form with celebrities is now much stronger than in the past.

I tend to find out a celebrity has died from social media, and more often than not in recent months, it’s been through Twitter’s trending topics. As soon as I see the name of a celebrity who isn’t a Kardashian type, my first thought is that that person has died. Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman, Lemmy, Paul Daniels, Terry Wogan: the list goes on.

With these deaths comes the complete meltdown of social sites like Twitter. Everybody wants to say something about what has occurred. For a few, they will try and own the grief and make it clear that they are a bigger fan of whoever has died than anyone else. It becomes a bit of a pissing contest. Even other celebrities get involved. It’s at that point that I normally need to turn my phone off and do something else.

That manic time only adds to the emotion you experience when a celebrity dies. Tributes come in, people start posting images, videos, memes and more, and you remember all the things you loved about the person. It’s as if we’re all contributing to some kind of collective grief. With celebrities being so much more accessible now, there’s a wealth of content out there that people can share immediately. We’ve been bombarded with it through media for years, and this in turn has helped build the imagined relationship.

This is the new norm

Nothing about this makes me think that it’s going to go away. Our thirst for media has meant that new celebrity personas are created every day. Furthermore, we’ve reached a point where many of those celebrities who became famous before the Internet, in the early days of television, national radio, VHS and various other mediums, have reached an age at which their more likely to die. This will continue to happen now. We made this situation ourselves by developing technology that allowed media to be widely shared. There’s no turning back.

Kind of makes you yearn for a simpler time, huh.

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