There are a host of issues with a real-time, massively-networked information source like Twitter (s twtr) when there’s a breaking news event like the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams — fake reports, inappropriate sponsored tweets, the release of potentially dangerous details about the method of death, and so on. As with any other rapidly unfolding situation that takes place on the internet, there is a certain amount of chaos and questionable behavior. But social media also has many positive aspects to it in those kinds of situations.
In a post at Politico, media writer Dylan Byers makes the case that such events show “social media at its worst.” Among other things, he says the outpouring of collective grief in real time makes death “feel cheap,” because posts about being touched by the actor and his struggle with depression appear alongside a post about what someone had for dinner, or a funny YouTube video they just watched.
There’s no question that the usual chaos of Twitter’s unfiltered stream, with hundreds of unrelated conversations happening at once, isn’t a great environment if you’re looking for a solemn state of mourning, and many people seem to share Byers’ view. Even though I had posted a number of tweets about Williams, I still got a negative reaction from someone because I posted a link to something that didn’t have anything to do with his passing — in other words, I wasn’t “on topic.” Byers argues that the network is also inherently narcissistic:
“The personal commentary can also be unseemly. 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… 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.”
Social networks enhance a shared experience
I don’t know about what is seemly vs. unseemly — I did live-tweet a friend’s funeral, after all, and many people argued that doing so was the worst thing they had ever heard of — but for me those personal aspects of Twitter and other social-media networks are what I love about them. Maybe the New York pizza parlor that tweeted their Williams-inspired menu and said “Rest in pizza, Robin” wasn’t using the medium in the best possible way, but it was still a human being’s response to a tragic event, and for me at least that has considerable power.
What I get from the network during such events is something similar to what happens when we hear about a friend who has passed away: a sense of shock and regret, but also funny stories about that person, snapshots in time that remind you of them and how they made you feel. Byers says in his post: “As for what I thought about — what movie, what stand-up routine, what quote — do you really care?” And my response would be yes, I do. Seeing people share their favorite movies and lines from Williams’ standup routines reminded me of what I loved about his comedy, and of the moments I remember watching his movies with others.
For me, at least, that personal connection and shared sense of mourning is a big part of what social media brings to those kinds of events. And that was especially the case for Robin Williams’ death, because he had been battling depression and various addictions, and ultimately committed suicide — and the discussion around those topics, including how to deal with depression and how to report on someone’s death by suicide, I thought was very useful. Byers says it is social media at its worst, but in some ways I think it is just the opposite.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / wanderluster