After Whitney Houston died, I -- like probably many of us -- logged onto Facebook and Twitter. I scrolled down the list of friends' statuses, some of whom were expressing heartfelt sadness in some way or another, and others who just felt the need to say something, anything, about what had happened. Overall almost everyone, no matter their age or connection to her music, felt compelled to acknowledge that she had passed away.
Because that's kind of what we do now. In all media, social and journalistic, we post. We post immediately and rapidly, usually without much hesitation. Sometimes we post so quickly that we don't even quite know what we're posting about, like these people, who thought Oprah Winfrey was Whitney Houston and sent out messages lamenting her death. Or others who convinced themselves that Houston had been killed by a collection of wasps.
Sometimes the updates we post en masse about a serious situation actually do have a palpable effect -- the recent Komen Planned Parenthood situation comes to mind, and the collective power Twitter had during the revolution in Egypt. But after a tragic passing, does the quick status message do it justice? Does that not make the death just another piece of social news -- like a viral video about panda bears or a stray thought about the New York Giants winning the Super Bowl?
Certainly commenting on a death publicly is nothing new, and a public lament can be as real and genuine as anything else, (though if we had Facebook during the time of JFK's assassination, we would likely have a lot of "OMG, Not Kennedy!!! THIS IS CRAZY!!" posts to sift through.) Maybe it's simply the frequency and ubiquity of the posts that have grown slightly unnerving recently.
In internet-speak, a commenter writes "FIRST" when they are the first to comment on an article or a blog, like they're marking their territory. But it's this same "first" mentality surrounding someone's death that seemed kind of off-putting Saturday night, as I scrolled through the Twitter and Facebook reactions, especially when over the past five years, we'd mostly dismissed Houston as a fallen icon with a drug problem.
So what makes us post about her death online with such a sudden outpouring of energy and swiftness? Is it because, when something of major significance occurs we want all our friends to know we read the news -- that we've seen it too and we're processing it? Or are our real selves actually mourning?
I was reminded of a piece Zadie Smith wrote about Facebook last year in the New York Review of Books called "Generation Why?" in which she questioned the stripped-down, less complex versions of ourselves we've chosen to showcase online.
"We know what we are doing 'in' the software," she suggests. "But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us?"
Smith writes about the number of people who now post messages on friends' Facebook pages even after they die, as if, in some sense, they believe they can still speak to their friends via their very public Facebook wall. Or, at least, so other friends know that they're affected, that they're mourning.
"What's the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?" she asks.
It's an interesting question, wondering if our online emotions over someone's death can accurately reflect the way we're feeling inside. As Houston's family and close friends mourn, do our "RIP Whitney" posts mean something, sandwiched between posts about cereal and recaps of "The Bachelor," especially after we've been experiencing, over many consecutive years, her slow-motion fall from grace?
Without much fuss we watched Houston publicly suffer and we were entertained by the unfortunate events surrounding her life's addictions. We watched her fall victim to domestic abuse and we tuned in to her uncomfortable appearances on "Being Bobby Brown," the 2004 reality show that broke ratings records on Bravo. In his review of that program, Barry Gerron of the Hollywood Reporter called it "undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way onto television."
Yet clips from that show, which portray Houston in a generally unflattering light, have millions of views online. One clip entitled, "Whitney Houston -- kiss my ass," features Brown and Houston in a heated argument about the state of America, yelling nonsense at the camera. A commenter, PizzaDinosaur, wrote on Saturday night: "when i heard she died, i ran to this video...rip whitney this_ is who you are to me, forever."
57 people have already "liked" that comment on YouTube as of Sunday.
Like Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse and so many before her, Houston's accomplishments were eclipsed in recent years by darker shadows. Her music broke records, but so did the ratings for her much sadder reality program. Where were the supportive status messages then -- the Facebook and Twitter laments, this complete shock and dismay, while Houston was struggling endlessly with drugs and alcohol?
This is not so much an admonishment, but rather a curiosity. We watch cultural icons crumble in life and then we are swiftly shocked by their deaths. There is nary a moment to process a death anymore because of the rush to say something, anything about it. Perhaps it's because we'd feel heartless, or out of the loop, if we didn't.
Had half the people who expressed sadness over Christopher Hitchens' death on Facebook and Twitter ever even thought twice about Christopher Hitchens during the years he lived? That's not a fair comparison, perhaps, but I wondered that the day after he passed away, when everyone suddenly had something to say about the fact that he'd died.
In "Generation Why," Smith writes about the reductive nature of Facebook, how our deepest thoughts have been molded to the big blue online format, rather than the other way around: "What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a 'life'? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list.)"
As we continue to shape our online lives and discover new ways to connect, we will go to Facebook and Twitter and our blogs and we will lament. Sometimes with just a line or two we will express very real shock and dismay and sadness and surprise, and then we will be done, and we'll move forward, and tomorrow there will be other funny cats and snowboarding fails and events to attend, and then that thought will likely evaporate.
This does not mean that the thought was insignificant. Of course not. We are likely moved now when we watch a young Whitney Houston astound audiences with her voice and charisma. But can we be moved in private anymore? Or will we continue to grieve openly and publicly for a day and then, simply, look away?
Follow Lucas Kavner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lucaskavner