Robin Williams died yesterday. Without question it was an unexpected tragedy.
Each time a celebrity dies unexpectedly I am surprised. What surprised me again this time was the number of Facebook tributes with people sharing their personal memories of watching his films, or offering condolences to his wife and family, or just words directly to Mr. Williams. My twitter account is also overrun with tweets about Mr. Williams. What did people do in the days before they had to limit their grief to 140 characters? Why are we so drawn to making statements about tragedies (about celebrities and non-celebrities) on social media?
The news articles no longer run quotes from celebrities, they cite tweets.
Steve Martin’s tweet was exceptionally eloquent:
I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.
It was both heartbreaking and moving. It was also 140 characters or less. 140 characters to sum up an Academy award winning actor’s life. Perhaps this is not wrong. It just is.
Ben Stiller found it difficult to limit himself to 140 characters:
A tweet cannot begin to describe the hugeness of Robin Williams heart and soul and talent. This is so sad.
And then he went on:
OK, I’ll try. I met him when I was 13 and a huge fan and he was so kind and I watched him be kind to every fan i ever saw him with…
And on . . . Ben Stiller tweeted five more times about Robin Williams. Why?
Why grieve so publicly? Through social media, Mr. Stiller and Mr. Martin are simultaneously sending out condolences to Mr. Williams’ friends and family, making a public statement for the media to print, and also reaching out to their fans. I wonder though: are Mr. Williams’ family and friends scrolling through their feeds searching for the hashtag #RobinWilliams? Are they missing some wonderful words about their husband, father, and friend due to social media? In Ben Stiller’s case, he could arguably send a handwritten card to Mr. Williams’ family with the same sentiments that he tweeted, especially if he couldn’t confine himself to 140 characters. And maybe he did. I’d like to think he did.
But what about the rest of us? What excuse do we have for drowning our sorrows on Facebook and Twitter, each one trying to be more eloquent or sentimental than the last? I am quite certain that Mr. Williams’ family is not reading the Facebook page or Twitter account of Anyone, Anywhere. So why do it? I’m not sure. The only reason I can come up with is that in a strange way, social media functions as a kind of grief counsellor for those people who aren’t personally connected to the star but who want to make their sorrow known. In sharing these memories, a person feels a connection–if not with the person directly, with others who share the same loss. It’s kind of like group therapy. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
I just feel that Robin Williams deserves more than 140 characters or a Share button. But maybe more words are not necessary.
Peace be with you Mr. Williams. The world mourns your loss.
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