Maya Angelou is immortal (at least on Twitter)


Maya Angelou during an interview in Washington on June 3, 1974. (Photo by Craig Herndon / The Washington Post)

When the author and performer Maya Angelou died Wednesday at age 86, she left behind a vast and incredible body of work: seven autobiographics, five essay collections, troves of recordings and poems. She also left behind a Twitter account, where since May 2010 she has blessed the social network with 255 bit-sized missives from her life.

Some of the tweets are mundane — “Happy Mother’s Day” or “I’ll be on CNN this afternoon.” Others spoke with the same gravitas as Angelou’s other work. But all of them, without fail, are getting more shares and retweets now than they ever did during Angelou’s life.


Retweets from Maya Angelou’s Twitter account over the past 90 days. (Topsy)

That isn’t surprising, of course: Revisiting a late artist’s work, in any medium, is a great way to memorialize his or her life. But Angelou is a special case. For one thing, her timeless, self-contained pearls of wisdom are an unusually perfect fit for Twitter — a medium founded on brevity and fueled by (the often emotional impulse of) the RT. For another thing, Angelou’s tweets are being replayed as representative samples of her work far more often than lines from, say, her breakthrough autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Her final tweet has been shared nearly 86,000 times.

That means that, for the moment at least, Angelou’s most visible work (in a long life bursting with visible work) is a 140-character message she casually dropped into the void on May 23.

And that’s really intriguing, when you think about it. Twitter is ephemeral and fleeting. Death is permanent. When the two collide in the public memory, we end up somewhere strange: a sort of stygian middle ground where thoughts intended for consumption at a specific moment in time keep reincarnating, endlessly, even when the moment has changed and their maker is gone.

Incidentally, this all plays into the reason why lawmakers, social networks and many others have begun taking an interest in what happens to an individual’s social media accounts after the person dies. Several states have begun to legislate on the issue so that heirs can edit the accounts or take them down; researchers in the United Kingdom have even envisioned a computer program that would let people “continue” tweeting, in their own voices, posthumously.

Angelou’s Twitter account almost comes across that way now: The flood of RTs keeps inserting her words, exactly as she wrote them, into the current pulse — like little flecks of immortality. Maybe that’s why people can’t stop RTing … even when they have such a wealth of other Angelou material to chose from.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey | May 29