The Stages of Social Media Grief of Celebrity Deaths
Update (4/22/16): I renamed this post, from “The Stages of Twitter Grief of Celebrity Deaths” to “The Stages of Social Media Grief of Celebrity Deaths” because this cycle of events happens across platforms.
I’d like to start this off by saying “Rest in Peace” to legendary soul singer, Teena Marie, who passed yesterday, apparently in her sleep. It seems we’re losing our icons all the time now. Who’s gonna replace them? Well that’s another topic for another day.
But not only did Teena’s death remind me of the fragility of life, but it also alerted me to something I hadn’t fully thought through before. Like any seemingly major news nowadays, Teena’s death broke on Twitter, in 140 characters. And what ensued after news of her death was announced was one of the messiest, most confusing hours I’ve ever spent on that microblogging network.
This led me to analyze the process of grieving on Twitter when celebrities die. It’s the same cycle each time, and it’s highly dramatic every single time. For hours straight, my timeline proceeds to explode in theatrics and hysterics. It never fails. So walk with me as I explore this process of Twitter grief, using Teena Marie’s death as an example of what goes down.
The 5 Stages of Social Media Grief:
RUMOR of celebrity death —> DEBATES about validity of sources —> CONFIRMATION from major news source —> GRIEF —> ARGUMENTS bout how folks grieve
Stage 1: Rumor of celebrity death
This begins when ONE individual tweet mentions a celebrity has died. Then that one tweet gets legs and is retweeted (RTed) by a bunch of people. Usually, people are super skeptical about it, because WEEKLY, there’s a different celebrity death rumor, and most don’t pan out to be true. In fact, according to Twitter, Bill Cosby has died no less than 8 times this year. And they kill off Morgan Freeman every couple of months like clockwork.
In fact, last week, some ridiculous dude who thought he was being funny did a FAKE retweet from CNN saying that Morgan Freeman had died in his home. The tweet got RTed so much that CNN had to tweet that it did NOT say Morgan Freeman had passed. It was such a mess.
The rumor stage is where some people choose to either completely ignore the conversation, while others actively question it. This is the stage that is usually the least dramatic. It’s just full of a lot of side-eyes being thrown back and forth between everyone. I like to call this the “We don’t believe you. You need more people” stage.
This stage is aggravating though because one doesn’t know what to believe. I don’t understand the pleasure behind killing people off before their time. I don’t see the funny in it.
Stage 2: Debates and arguments about validity of source
This is the stage that begins the process of any celebrity news break source. As the news is still being considered a rumor, what happens is everyone starts to argue about how valid the source that broke the story is. Whoever the original tweet started from is given extreme side-eyes (O___o) if it isn’t a major outlet like CNN or BBC. However, what’s interesting is that neither of these outlets is the first to ever report breaking news on celebrities. EVER.
Why? Because they do journalism the traditional way. They sit and verify sources and make sure that the info is correct because they have a lot to lose if it isn’t. This is GREAT, of course, because it ensures their accuracy. But what it means in 2010 terms, and the superfast information highway we’re all a part of is that they are seldom FIRST to tell us news. Therefore, looking to them to confirm news before reacting means there’ll be a delay.
CNN took 1.5 hours AFTER TMZ broke it to confirm Michael Jackson’s death. When Michael Jackson died, TMZ broke the news first with a quick post on their site. This is when I did a *chair slide* while at work on “OMG the King of Pop is REALLY dead.” A lot of people didn’t believe this for at least another hour because they said it was TMZ. TMZ may not know much about history. Or biology. Or science books. But what they DO know is their celebrity news. And they got a mole in every department of Los Angeles’ anything. They knew MJ died before even his family knew. Why? They pay people in LA institutions for info.
Some people cite Wikipedia as their source of information, and they get side-eyed because we all know Wikipedia is user-driven, and can be edited by anyone. Then some folks say they’re waiting for TMZ to say it, since they’re the CNN of celebrity news.
But what was interesting with Teena Marie’s death is that the point of initial confirmation of her death was by Ron Isley, who tweeted…
This is what started it all. And the response to Ron’s tweet from people was half belief and half skepticism. The people on Twitter started arguing back and forth about whether they believed this. I mostly believed him because he’s a part of her inner circle. Ron and Teena are known to be friends, so for him to tweet this, I was doubtful it was still in “rumor” stage. However, half of Twitter were of the “I’ll wait til CNN says something” variety.
It’s like getting a text message from your cousin’s best friend saying that they gave birth, and you saying “I’ma wait for it to be on Facebook before I congratulate her.” Sure Facebook makes it REALLY official, but at least consider that text message.
Plus, although TMZ, CNN and all those give celebrity news, let’s be honest. They give BREAKING celebrity news on those who are on their radar. And most of them aren’t celebs that Black folks of days yore might hold dear, if they aren’t currently buzzworthy. Teena Marie called herself a “Black Artist in white skin.” TMZ wasn’t gonna be checking for her that tough. TMZ got a tracking chip in most celebs but apart from MJ, they’re rarely the one to break Black celeb news. TMZ will have something on Britney Spears if she gets a papercut but Teena wasn’t on their “let me check for her” list.
But yes, the debate often goes on for hours, until an “official” news source repeats what the person tweeted 2 hours before.
Stage 2.5: Argument about conflicting sources
When a rumor of the death is out, and we’re arguing about the validity of the source, someone else usually comes along to let folks know that it is INDEED a rumor and that the celebrity is actually fine and dandy, eating gummi worms at home AS WE SPEAK!
Yesterday, Teena Marie’s death had at least 3 “celebrities” who denied it, saying they had insider info that let them know she’s ok.
Roland, Miss Info, Kym Whitley and Lisa Raye all tweeted talmbout Teena Marie was fine. This is when everyone who had believed Ron Isley started questioning like “Hmm…” But even then… Mr. Biggs KNEW Teena. These other randoms, on the other hand… I’m not even gon talk bout all the shade Twitter threw at them. LOLLL
Stage 2.75: Retraction of Denial of Death by Conflicting Sources
This is when those random individuals who thought they were privy to insider info ensuring well-being of said celeb realize they were wrong. Yesterday, within that hour of Roland an’ em saying Teena Marie was fine, there were retractions from all of them saying they were wrong. And that she had indeed passed.
They left me in a glass case of gullibility and emotions. I was SPENT! But my *wall slide* was already on standby. I had already bust one out but I still needed to slide down the rest of the 3 walls of the room.
Stage 2.9: Bargaining
What usually happens here is pretty uncouth in my book. It’s when people are close to accepting the celeb’s death, and then proceed to bargain with the Lord for 3 lesser artists. I don’t think it’s right to wish death on others. Find some broughtupsy.
Stage 3: Confirmation of celebrity death by major news source
This is when CNN FINALLY picks up the death of the celebrity, and they tweet it as breaking news, although the rest of us found out 2 hours before. This is also when the final skeptics realize that they can indeed tweet “RIP.”
What’s interesting is that oftentimes, the major news outlet cites the source that originally broke the news on Twitter, or another tweet confirming the death. Huffington Post wrote their article breaking Teena’s death and based the whole story on Ron Isley’s tweet. Yes, we’re back in full circle.
Anywho, following this confirmation is usually when Twitter goes in full fledge mourning mode. What does this look like? Wells…
Stage 4: Grieving and mourning of said celeb
For hours on end, Twitter ends up mourning for the celebrity that has passed on. Now, here is also where Twitter splits in half. There are TWO types of ways people tweet during this time.
There are the folks who are actively paying homage to the celeb. Whole timelines are full of tweets remembering the celeb, tweeting links to their work, music, films, quotes… everything. We truly PAY HOMAGE to their lives.
And then there are the folks who go above and beyond to prove that they were indeed stans of this celebrity. Sometimes, people try to outstan each other, and it becomes a competition of sorts. And yes, it can get pretty ridiculous at times.
Stage 5: Argument About How Folks Grieve
Folks throw themselves on celebs’ eCaskets, talmbout “WHY LAWD?!?” I’m usually of this group. It’s just when you’re airing out disbelief at how young/healthy/virile the celeb was. And them being gone is so sudden and final. This is natural. Let folks have their times to lament in peace.
But there are people on Twitter who make sure to piss on everyone’s mourning parade. The ones who go “If you ain’t checked for that celebrity since May, don’t say RIP.” EVERY. SINGLE. TIME, there’s someone who makes sure to let folks know that even though they aren’t that celeb’s fan, they should hold their condolences.
Umm… there IS such a thing as common courtesy. Let folks pay respect and shut the hell up. Just because one isn’t that celeb’s biggest fan does not mean their death won’t have SOME effect. Any human life lost should be able to be acknowledged without judging ass people having to say something bout it.
And we musn’t forget the people who tweet talmbout “I’m not sure why y’all are making such a big deal about it. People die everyday. Besides, why is this celebrity’s life worth more than anybody else’s. Betchu ain’t mourn your cousin like this.”
Yes, this happens.
Anywho, this argument usually takes up AT LEAST another hour of the time on Twitter. It’s just a really time-consuming process.
Yesterday, and any other day when a celebrity dies and we deal with it on Twitter murks me softly. We’ve done this process with every celebrity death, especially Black ones. Michael Jackson, Gary Coleman, Teddy Pendergrass, Lena Horne. And the cycle repeats itself each time. I admit to being part of the problem. I’ma try to fix the part I play in all this. I’m usually the one *wall sliding* 1st. But yes…
And furthermore, on the death of Teena Marie and how it was handled on Twitter. Lemme say this… *deep sigh*.
People really spent ALL night misconstruing Teena Marie’s legendary self with the not legendary Tierra Marie. Homegirl was safe in her home. Y’all don’t need to kill her off just cuz her music needs to be buried. Don’t wish her that evil.
Then, people STAYED misspelling her name. Even celebs who claimed to be her friend. Heck, Mr. Biggs first called her Tina Marie. Then my beloved Mary J. Blige, who I still love in spite of her grammatically-incorrect tweets.
When I’m old and gray and it’s my time to follow the drinking gourd to the Lawd, if y’all don’t spell my name right, I’ma burn ALL your rice up. If you don’t gimme the common courtesy of learning to spell my name correctly, I’m haunting ALL your spell checks. Yes. It’s like that.
But what I AM gonna need everyone to do is learn how to spell TEENA MARIE. That’s what I’ma NEED up out y’all.
Teena Marie’s voice was too soulful to have her name thrown back in her face misspelled like this. Oh and I don’t even have the energy to address this…
I. DON’T. HAVE. TIME.
Stage 5.5: Inappropriate jokes about death
This is when people do the most with the utter least and start making jokes about death or the deceased. They’re usually in completely bad taste and here’s the point where the underbelly of Twitter makes you realize why some people can’t have nice things. The only good thing that happens during tragedy on Twitter is that you learn who you need to unfollow to purge your timeline. UGH!
Would love to hear what you think.