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The Terror Behind Our Grief: What We Talk About When We Talk About Robin Williams

Our sadness about the deaths of celebrities is about a lot more than just mourning their loss.
 
 
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If you want to see how the world really works, watch a tragedy unfold on Facebook.

What critics say about the social network is oftentimes accurate: It can be nasty and brutish, chaotic and dim, full of terrible information and the rankest expressions of ignorance. This is especially true in the case of tragedies as their full dimensions are just starting to come into focus: Ferguson. Gaza. Sanford. Isla Vista. People share without thinking, then stake untenable positions with the appearance of adamantine resolve, showing little or no compunction about inflaming their friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances and even the completest of strangers. The combustible mixture of social media, ego, politics and pride can turn even minor disputes into epic conflagrations. Basically it’s civilization, but in miniature.

There is, however, a flip side to this equation — another way in which tragedy finds new-media expression — and it’s actually just as revealing.

The news last week of Robin Williams’ death occasioned a massive outpouring of public grief. Within moments of hearing the terrible news, millions flocked to social media to post their own personal remembrances of the beloved actor. In place of the normal vicissitudes of Facebook and Twitter, a rare consensus was established of the type we rarely ever see — except when someone famous dies uncontroversially.

It would have been easy to take this all at face value and leave the psychology of these displays unexplored; thankfully, that wasn’t the case. For every action on the Internet, there is bound to be a reaction (especially in the media world, where the well-time rebuttal is its own form of cultural capital). And the reaction to the glut of Robin Williams tributes, just like similar reactions after tragedies past, says an awful lot about where our heads are at, collectively — both by being right, and also by being incredibly wrong.

As tends to happen these days when a famous person passes away, once the rush of memorials reached a certain critical mass last week, a minority consensus began to emerge — that many, if not most, of those individuals professing heartbreak were not doing so in full earnestness. There was, this argument goes, an element of vulgar performance.

Some critics contended that the displays of mourning were actually lazy and inadequate — “homogenized grief,” as  this widely shared Clickhole article put it. Others, like Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, suggested darker ulterior motives:

Politico’s Dylan Byers, meanwhile, explained his own frustrations  thusly:

At times, it can seem like people are trying to out-sad one another. Allow me to let you know how devastated I am about this person I never met. Allow me to tell you what my favorite films were. Allow me to share my favorite quote. — You have to imagine that the people who are truly grieving over said individual’s death do not, in those first minutes, think to take to their Twitter accounts. The stream of personal remembrances reminds you of social media’s true raison d’être, and throws it into sharp relief: Every post, every tweet, every click is ultimately about you.

On the one hand, there are plenty of obvious reasons why Williams’ death hits hard. He was a special performer. More than that, the circumstances of his death understandably  strike a chord for people who have experienced in one way or another the struggles of clinical depression. But I will admit that on some level, there’s an appeal to Byers’ contentions nonetheless: There is something of the rote and derivative in much of the mourning we’ve seen.