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15 January 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:59pm

The grim reality of celebrity death on the internet

Grieve – or don’t – how you want. For the really macabre spectacle, you have to turn to the clickbait factories turning sorrow into cash.

By Tom Mendelsohn

Is 69 the new 27, the new “age of rock star death”, when all our most beloved titans of the arts die?

It is not, but in the days following the sad deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Lemmy (who actually made it to 70, an iconoclast even in death), you might be forgiven for thinking it, judging by the number of times people on the internet are making this same observation. In much the same way that celebrity deaths don’t come in threes, no matter how many sombre conversations you have about it with near-strangers in the office kitchenette, it will still be true that people don’t die in patterns, even if they are tangentially linked by accidents of birth.

While it is true that Twitter is not the same as real life, celebrity death tics nevertheless become even more pronounced as you watch millions of your peers each processing the demise of someone they liked. And though it’s a great platform to make friends and reminisce with likeminded strangers across the world, Twitter, and by extension the whole content ecosystem that’s grown up around it, is also a great place to get wound up over people doing things in a way that you don’t like. It isn’t changing human nature, but it does magnify it unhelpfully.

Thus each new death is greeted in waves, by runs of shock, grief, reminiscence, and backlash, a histrionic solenoid of passion and counterpassion, in the fog of war of which the simple fact of someone’s passing can often be lost.

There are behaviours I wish we could avoid; that sheer initial wall of people adding nothing to the collective mourn except the sound of their own voices, by saying nothing more than “RIP” or “such-and-such is dead” is especially grating, like they’re trying to make it about them. The performative outpourings of digital sack-cloth and ashes over people you’ve never met can also seem indulgent, no matter how much you think you own part of them from their output. Then again, people who are out and about simply to police others’ grief and however they choose to mourn are just as bad. The whole attendant circus seems only to cheapen things, but like other great manmade forces given life by too many cooks, there’s no way of stopping it.

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I’m not here to complain about how people process their own grief; I do find myself getting irritated in the moment when everyone is banging on about someone whose life’s work I was indifferent to, but I understand that fighting about it just makes everything worse. If only the same could be said about the world at large; however annoying it is to feel like you’re being told to feel a certain way about something you don’t like, what comes next is ugly for everyone.

Probably the least edifying aspect of the death of a much-loved star is all the little pound signs appearing in the eyes of web desk editors the world over. There isn’t a much grimmer spectacle than that of media organisations nakedly profiting from the tragic early demise of, say, a transcendental pop chameleon, not least because you can put hard numbers onto the amount of money each perfectly SEOed bouquet of clickbait produces.

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Obituaries are great – make them long, loving and lavish; people want to read about that person’s life and achievements. Warm tributes from friends, kindly anecdotes from encounters with true fans, even galleries of a musician’s long life of changing looks or gifs of a thespian’s most darkly villainous moments are all appropriate. But 20 articles written by battery hens with journalism degrees all posted before lunch, each discussing in 200 words or less a separate minutia of a person’s life in order to multiply advertising profits? That’s grim.