Nytimes.com 17 Feb, 2012. Web. 18 Feb, 2012.
Posting to Mourn a ‘Friend’
By IAN LOVETT
LIKE most Americans with Facebook accounts, every time I logged on to my page last weekend, the top of my news feed looked like this:
“Neb Asfaw and 32 other friends posted about Whitney Houston.”
Reactions to Ms. Houston’s passing (expressions of shock and sadness, remembrances, videos of her performances) overran social media sites last Saturday. By 8 p.m., just an hour after Ms. Houston’s death was first reported (on Twitter), 18 percent of all Twitter posts mentioned “Whitney.”
“I grew up listening to her, and a lot of my friends on Facebook share that memory, so it’s kind of mourning with the community,” said Mr. Asfaw, 36. “This is big, worldwide news, and I want to be part of that in my own little way.”
Everyone else wanted to be part of this collective mourning as well, even those who had no words of their own to offer. Twitter quickly became an echo chamber, reverberating with retweets from news organizations and celebrities who had acknowledged Ms. Houston’s death. (A tweet from the rapper Lil Wayne, “R.I.P. Whitney Houston. #Retweet for Respect,” was retweeted 58,000 times over the next few days.)
Vanessa Jimenez did not consider herself a particularly big Whitney Houston fan. Still, within moments of hearing the news (via Facebook), she posted about it. “For some strange reason, there is this desire, or need, or maybe some sort of competitiveness, that drives me to want to be one of the first people to post about a major event, or to say something new about it,” said Ms. Jimenez, 26. “I felt compelled to weigh in on it in my own way.”
This compulsion to weigh in on a news event, even one with only a tangential relationship to one’s own life, is endemic among people who use social media, according to Jonathan Taplin, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California who has studied sentiment on Twitter.
“Once people embrace Twitter, they feel some kind of addiction to being public,” Professor Taplin said. “They almost feel like they have to express an opinion about everything.”
It was not always thus. For much of the 20th century, this type of public mourning, even for loved ones, was frowned on in Western culture, according to Katherine Ashenburg, author of “The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die.” But toward the end of the last century, as celebrity culture rose, people began mourning for famous people whom they did not know, like John Lennon or Diana, more expressively than they grieved for their own family members.
“Social media has given people a kind of community to mourn in,” Ms. Ashenburg said. “Death has entered the conversation again. This shows that we’re willing to put words to it and express ourselves, even at a level that might be kind of facile.”
By the time of Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, social media already provided a major venue for fans to discuss the King of Pop. But with the exponential growth of Facebook and Twitter over the last three years — and more people tweeting from their smartphones — talk of Ms. Houston seemed even more inescapable.
Indeed, many people who discussed Ms. Houston last weekend said they took to Facebook and Twitter because social media sites allowed them to reach a much wider community.
She would not have called that friend; they don’t have that kind of relationship, she said. Twitter allowed her to express her condolences to him.
But if Twitter and Facebook have offered fans a community in which to grieve, they have also accelerated the pace of mourning many times over.
Within 24 hours, the cacophony of Whitney Houston posts on Twitter had hushed to a dull murmur. When Chris Brown took the stage at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night, he almost instantly overtook Ms. Houston as the du-jour topic of conversation. Jokes about bathtubs (Ms. Houston’s body was found in a bathtub) began to appear, along with posts complaining about all the Whitney Houston posts.
By Monday, tweets like this from Kelsey Chang were increasingly common: “K enough with the whitney houston #annoying.”