What was presented as genuine emotional loss sometimes looked like competitive grieving — sadness mixed with the performance art of social media. Or as Jacob Silverman witheringly sighed on Jewcy.com, “On Twitter, grief is just another meme.”
If your Facebook feed was free of Gibb adulation, then it might have been nostalgia-bombed by Donna Summer retrospectives, Adam “MCA” Yauch tributes, Levon Helm memories, Maurice Sendak mash notes, and Chuck Brown YouTube videos, photographs and moldering interviews. Everyone was sad, so sad. Everyone was everyone’s favorite artist.
In the boomer icon death flood of recent weeks, certain behaviors have emerged, the new rules for mourning online: Sorrow is poignant. Sorrow is public. Sorrow is pithy.
“He finally reached Brooklyn. #RIPMCA,” one Twitter user wrote. (Actually, dozens wrote it or variations on it.)
“Robin Gibb, you’ll be stayin’ alive in my heart.”
“Maurice Sendak has gone where the wild things are,” wrote another hundred or so — it’s convenient when your dead heroes leave behind lyrics or phrases that lend themselves to mortality musings.
If grief is a meme, it’s not a meme only on Twitter. Our need to publicize sadness goes beyond the online realm, which is why Buckingham Palace wheezed with the pollen from flowers left by Princess Diana’s mourners, why Michael Jackson’s tear-stricken fans aimed themselves like homing pigeons toward Neverland. Kurt Cobain died in 1994, and armies of eighth-graders waited for adults to ask why they were wearing black arm bands, just so they could have the satisfaction of rolling their eyes.
In psychology, the behavior is linked to the concept of “basking in reflected glory” — the impulse to share in or take credit for the triumphs of loved ones — the ones we actually know, such as siblings, and the ones we don’t, such as celebrities. “It’s abbreviated ‘BIRG,’ ” Spee Kosloff says. Kosloff, an experimental psychologist at California State University at Fresno, studies the public’s relationship with famous people.
“Celebrities are symbols,” Kosloff says. Symbols of fame, wealth, uniqueness, good hair. “By our association with them, we can BIRG and gain a feeling of cosmic specialness.” When they die, the specialness disappears, so we cling however we can — reminding everyone that we identified with them, understood their writing, listened to the B-side more than all the other Twidiots out there. “It’s inflating your own personal tie to the thing that makes you exceptional.”