Death and Collective Mourning in Social Media – When Numbers Matter

We lost another one. Though she fought her share of inner-demons in life, many would agree that Whitney Houston had a gift only an angel could share with the world — a gift that continues to move people, even after her death. A legend by anyone’s standards.

As news of her tragic, untimely passing at the age of 48 quickly shook the internet, we all (individually and collectively) painted a portrait of a woman whose talent and life made an impact on the world almost too big to be contained in memory, tweets, or recollections of the fans she loved.

This is when numbers in social media matter.  With the passing of another much-loved entertainer whose sound was so unique it has yet to be duplicated, it has become increasing clear that millions of people expressing their condolences and honoring the life of a person who touched us all is, actually, quite significant.

The significance in “social media mourning” isn’t in touting record-breaking tweets noted dutifully by digital media news sites.  Nor is it in championing social media for, once again, beating old media to the “breaking story” punch (note: Whitney Houston’s death was announced on Twitter 26 minutes before mainstream news confirmed and reported it).

The significance of us collectively honoring a deceased legend in social media rests in us painting a nuanced portrait of the entertainer’s life  for younger generations (millineals and teenagers) who otherwise would not understand the enormity of the entertainer’s contribution to the world. Wikipedia does a fine job of detailing life achievements but, when it comes to explaining how those achievements changed the world, nothing compares to raw human emotion (even if that emotion is edited down to 140 characters).

Collective social media mourning (even crass jokes made at the expense of the deceased) helps to tell a colorful story that encyclopedias and obituaries never could or would.  It brings the life and legacy of a human being into sharper focus and offers younger generations an  understanding of how a talented life truly effects society when it is in the world and how we grieve and heal after it has left the world.

The sheer volume of people posting their shock, grief and memories in social media acts as a signal to younger generations to take notice of a life that they may not have known intimately, but that they should recognize as contributing to the very art and culture they love.  How many 20-somethings really knew about Etta James or Don Cornelius before they died? Social media mourning educates the young as much as it honors and celebrates the life of the departed.

But even as social media mourning gives us all permission to to share our grief collectively and publicly in digital detail, I can’t help but think that the very youth I speak of are processing all of this in a way we older folks simply can’t understand right now (and won’t for some time to come). How this will all effect how they process and express grief and celebration in the death of a loved one (or beloved public figure) in their adult lives remains to be seen.

No matter how sincere or poetic one tweet or Facebook status update may be, it takes a social media village to understand and honor the life of an iconic figure that has passed on left us for now. Whitney Houston family and managers website apparently understand this very well. In the place of the original website full of updates about the singer’s life and upcoming projects is one simple, elegant page featuring a photo of Ms. Houston looking elegant and angelic as ever with the following statement:

Remembering Whitney Houston

The greatest voice of our time.

Share your memories.

Beneath this statement is a lavender Facebook Share button followed by a Facebook comment stream where over 6,000 people so far have shared their condolences, thoughts and prayers.

Indeed, when mourning the death of a legend in social media, numbers do matter.

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