The Grief Over Publicity

They say nothing goes away on the internet. When something noteworthy occurs, it is forever carved into the digital walls of the web. Even those events that seem relatively insignificant — perhaps yesterday’s Lakers game, or even your very own fifteenth birthday party — can probably be found somewhere on the internet. In today’s society, everything we do is documented somewhere by someone, and that digital documentation remains there for eternity.

A very large part of this development is due to the relatively recent proliferation of online media. Websites like Facebook or Twitter provide a digital timeline of our activities, our thoughts and, ultimately, our lives. The internet allows us to communicate with each other — and in turn receive information much faster than ever before. When your friend in Korea hears news of your favorite Korean pop star, it only takes a few more seconds for you to hear about it, too.

Interestingly, this unique aspect of today’s media culture has altered how we react to the death of an individual. It used to be that when someone passed away, news of his or her death would slowly spread through word of mouth over a course of weeks or even months. Those who were close to the person in particular may not hear of this individual’s death until a year or so later, that is if ever at all. Today, of course, things are much different; when someone dies, many media outlets post news articles about it almost immediately, and our Facebook or Twitter feeds suddenly light up with eulogies and condolences to whoever is affected. Hearing of someone’s death in today’s era is not just instantaneous, it also allows us to commemorate an individual online as a collective network of human beings thanks to our recent advances in technology — even if a few of us would rather spread hatred instead of positivity.

Moreover, our interest in the dead has significantly increased since the birth of social media. When news of an individual’s death is passed onto you, even if you have never heard of the person before, you feel compelled to learn more about him or her. Surely, if people are mourning someone’s loss, there must be some significance tied to that individual. Those who remember the passing away of Michael Jackson in 2009 may recall that shortly after his death, some of his most popular songs shot up music charts around the world, likely due to the general public’s renewed interested in the pop star’s works after he passed on.

One recent example that has affected me personally was the death of former Nintendo executive Hiroshi Yamauchi last year. As a fan of video games, his works have not only influenced me as a gamer, but also as a person. His death is significant, in this case, because it occurred overseas in Japan. The fact that gamers all over the world were able to hear about it the same day it happened — and as a result collectively celebrate his life or mourn for his death — is a testament to how connected our world has become.

Unfortunately, the internet is home to not just positivity when it comes to death. It is also a breeding ground for hatred, giving rise to our infamously unsettling internet culture. Everybody has their critics, and these critics seem especially vocal when someone they despise passes away. The death of Amy Winehouse, and more recently Philip Seymour Hoffman, have both attracted unwanted attention thanks to each individual’s respective struggles with alcohol and drug addiction.

The internet allows people to act this way for two reasons. First, it gives its users a veil that renders them anonymous, so that their actions on the web cannot be connected to their real life selves. Second, the physical, spatial separation between people on the internet allows users to escape the immediate consequences or retaliation that might occur had the conversation occurred in person.

Even so, a couple of haters is not enough to drown out the angelic choir that is the general population’s true love and adoration for those who passed away, thanks to our digitally connected world.

Death has always been a significant part of our human race, and the internet has helped us voice our opinions to the world. Combined, our reactions toward the deceased have been amplified, both positively and negatively.

 

Bryce Tham is a first-year computer science major. He can be reached at btham@uci.edu.