When Joe Paterno died last month I tweeted at the time that there is a difference between showing respect to the dead and assessing/honoring their legacy. Put another way, when a person dies, their life and the lives of those they loved is changed with irrevocable finality. Coach Paterno left behind a wife, he left behind children, he left behind many players. All of them loved him in different ways. And yes, he left behind the nasty wake of a scandal that may or may not have been preventable if he had acted differently.
Yet, in the Twitterverse, these two incredibly different concepts of respect and assessment cross paths at a furious rate. One person tweets a prayer or a good word, another person tweets a fill in the blank joke about the media developed caricature of the deceased.
On Saturday, when Whitney Houston died, it was clear from the beginning that in addition to pop stars from around the world mourning her via social media, that others would make reference to her self-admitted drug addled past. Was that appropriate?
I write this because anyone who knows me knows that I am about as far removed from reverence and solemnity as you can get. My instincts when an event like “rock star found dead” hits the news is to be rather meta about it, and yes, possibly a little snarky.
However–it’s becoming clear to me that those moments after a death are not really the time for the kind of public sarcasm and snarkiness that often makes me smile on Twitter. In the moments after death, it makes more sense to me to simply say a private prayer for the deceased, and then to share a positive memory or thought. It won’t shock you to know that I did not know Whitney Houston or Joe Paterno personally. Therfore, I do not share in the grief and pain that those close to them felt. But It seems odd then that we use a tool as powerful as Twitter to claim ownership of the mourning process in a way that is not only unhelpful, but an affront to the inherent dignity of a person who has left us, regardless of the circumstances.
Where social media continues to struggle is that it is still searching for the leaders who will ‘set the stroke’ of acceptability like the captain of a rowing team. Places like Twitter and Facebook make is incredibly easy for us to think the only people who can hear what we have to say are those that agree with us, or know our personalities. That is simply untrue.
This morning, a mother mourns the passing of her daughter, and a daughter mourns the passing of her mother. If that sentence doesn’t make us all try better to control our gut reactions on Twitter then I have to wonder how we can start proving that ultimately there is more about a human being to celebrate than to denigrate.