What does mourning on Twitter mean?


IL – “About seven years ago, Lauren Bacall showed up at my place for a party,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Patrick Shanley tweeted Wednesday morning. “It was like having a yacht show up in your bathtub.” Shanley’s anecdote was wry but affectionate.

Once you get past your justifiable residual resistance to the very notion of ubiquitous micro obituaries via Twitter, it was quite an apt evocation of the regal movie star, who lived a full and unapologetic life and who was always the classiest person in any room. Nonetheless, the deaths in such close proximity this past week of the beloved comedic actor Robin Williams, who took his own life on Monday at the age of 63, and the Hollywood star Bacall, who died Tuesday at the age of 89, set in stark relief staggering recent changes in the role of social media in the face of celebrity deaths, and how colleagues and fans mourn in public.

Although the circumstances of their deaths were very different, both Bacall and Williams were artists of the highest order. It is impossible to overstate the proto-feminist import of Bacall’s singular place in the Golden Age of Hollywood — her calm acceptance of the camera’s gaze even as she defied traditional objectification at every turn. Her death feels like the loss of one of the few remaining links to a vanished era of glamour and romance and, at the same time, the end of a radical, combative, contemporary spirit.

But Bacall had lived long and by her own rules. Williams’ death was much harder for many people.

For Williams’ fans, especially the cubicle dwellers forced into the kind of obedience that corporate survival can demand, his stunning improvisational oeuvre, at once nonthreatening and deeply anarchic, was a constantly re-energizing reminder that true creativity will always burst out of every confining box (or lamp). If Williams can bounce out of that prison, one always thought, watching him in one movie or TV show after another, then maybe I can bounce out of mine and leave ’em laughing rather than mad.

Williams’ personal habits and problems, which really are just now coming to light, had remained mostly hidden from public view, even if anyone who saw his recent Broadway performance in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” (another example of his playing a free spirit caged) could sense a troubling sadness in his brilliant work. But it just seemed like he was acting. Williams’ wife, Susan Schneider, said Thursday that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

It has dawned on many people anew this week that there is no one to replace Robin Williams. Perhaps some of the intensity of the outpouring at the loss of this amazing artist came from our intuiting that we had taken our eye off the man a little in recent years, and that we had not been there when he needed us, even though he’d been there when we needed him to preserve our sanity. And now it’s too late.

But then maybe that’s not the role of a fan, but of a genuine intimate.

These days, though, the boundary between the intimate and the fan has become so porous as hardly to exist at all. Over the past few days for anyone with a Twitter account, it has been hard to tell the difference between public mourning and the self-promotion of the living.

While it’s true that the deaths of celebrities always have been big news and, for some, economic opportunities, what’s different now is not so much the quantity of material and analysis available, although the number of stories some news outlets have run about Williams is truly staggering, but the ease with which once-private tributes are turned into public streams.

Just a couple of years ago, for example, we would not have been so aware of Conan O’Brien breaking down as he shared the news of Williams’ death with his audience while wrapping up the taping of his show. But that’s now a packaged, shareable, watchable moment. So is Jimmy Fallon’s tearful tribute to Williams, marketed by the intensity of its emotion.

Just a couple of years ago, you would have had to have actually been in the audience of “Aladdin” on Broadway to experience the Tuesday night tribute to Williams led by James Monroe Iglehart, who plays the Genie in that movie-into-musical and who well knows that without Williams’ initial improvisations, he would have had none of his Tony Award-winning material. But the curtain-call singalong of “Friend Like Me” is everywhere online, kindly made available by the good people at Disney.

Is this a good or a bad thing? That’s hard to say. I don’t mean to imply any of the above tributes were anything less than sincere. It all depends, really, whether or not you see any danger in the sharing of a spontaneous outpouring — whether you think such clips make us all feel better, venerating the person being mourned and allowing more mourners to join, or whether you worry about these things revealing too much to too many, reducing a painful loss to bathos or expediency or opportunity.

I find it very hard to say — this past week, really, has been the first great manifestation of this issue. I had not realized how much has changed.

When a celebrity dies, Twitter and Facebook now provide places for people to share, say, the one encounter they once had with the person being mourned. It is, you might say, a democratization that can help us process our feelings. You don’t need to be an intimate of someone to acutely feel their loss.

But then there’s the new dark side, the ballooning out of control, the excess, the presumed intimacies, the intrusions, the collapsing of all the boundaries that anyone counts on in such a moment. Who could not feel for Williams’ mourning 25-year-old daughter, Zelda, when she said she was quitting both Twitter and Instagram, due to the harassment from anonymous posters she found there. Newsweek offered a blow-by-blow account of Zelda Williams’ online experience this week, which began with her posting a beautiful quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery and telling the world she loved and missed her father, and ended with her being at the mercy of so-called trolls, persons who hitherto would have had no chance whatsoever of finding the young woman in her hour of need. Even in the telling of a cautionary social-media nightmare, the Newsweek account felt exploitative. “When the Internet fails,” New York Magazine also tweeted, apropos of this matter, having it both ways.

These are hard new times when it comes to matters of celebrity life and death. Great actors have always fought for reasonable courtesies, for some respecting of boundaries. Now more than ever, that battle does not end with death.


Originally published by the Chicago Tribune, author Chris Jones.