The beautiful tributes flooding social media following the death of Robin Williams far outnumber the “cruel and unnecessary” comments from trolls that drove his daughter Zelda from Instagram and Twitter on Tuesday. But this is the nature of shared grief in the Internet age: communal—and complicated.
Celebrity deaths have always affected the public. But in the Internet era, fans are no longer spectators. We flock to Twitter or Facebook when tragedy strikes.We express our reactions through the immediacy of social media, looking for the connections humans crave in times of sorrow. And for some, expressing our deepest feelings somehow comes more easily when we type than talk.
See also: Dealing With Death In A Digital Age
The Fisher King
Known for manic, stream-of-consciousness hilarity, Williams had more than just comedic brilliance. He had a career you could mark your life by, whether you grew up with Mork and Mindy or got to know him through his impressive, decades-long list of feature films. Williams, however, was more like the pal who cracked you up in math class or a wacky uncle you adored your whole life. His sudden passing felt personal.
Fans and friends of Williams continue to hit their social media accounts in force with shared clips and comments. Many paid their respects with the hashtag #standsondesk, a shout-out to a scene from Dead Poets Society in which students recited a Walt Whitman poem to honor their departing teacher, played by Williams. Others, acknowledging reports that Williams took his own life, tweeted advice and resources to help those suffering from depression or considering self harm.
News outlets called attention to the actor’s last tweet, sent on July 31, in which he wished his 25-year-old daughter a happy birthday. It included an Instagram photo of a smiling Williams holding his daughter when she was little more than a toddler. The message now stands as a sort of online memorial for her father, a place for well-meaning visitors to pay their respects.
On her Tumblr account, Zelda Williams shared with fans a poignant farewell to her father.
For the briefest moment, it seemed much of the Internet put away its snark and cynicism to mourn. And that says as much about us as a people as it does about the individuals we’ve lost.
The Crazy Ones
On the other hand, sharing your grief in public these days means you also have to reckon with the griefers.
Reliably, some news outlets grabbed clicks by treating the event as spectacle. In ABC News’ case, unfortunate site design juxtaposed terrible news judgment (to hover a helicopter over Williams’ home) with proper reporting (that the family wants to grieve in private). The result: a grand cognitive dissonance of bad taste.
For at least one group of publicity hounds, the star’s death was yet another golden opportunity to attract attention. As the Westboro Baptist Church geared up for its region-wide tech protest in the Bay Area yesterday, the hate group couldn’t resist taking jabs at Williams, even implying that his home could wind up on its list of protests.
Some jihadis tweeted videos of Williams cracking wise post 9/11, accompanied with comments such as “may Allah make him burn.”
Ironically, the comedian probably would have seen such tweets—however grossly inappropriate they may seem to many—as irresistible fodder for jokes.
The highs and lows of social media are clearly amplified for celebrities and their families. So maybe it should come as no surprise that last night, Zelda announced she was stepping away from Twitter, as well as Instagram. The trolling and negative comments were more than she could handle. As she posted on Instagram:
I will be leaving this account for a bit while I heal and decide if I’ll be deleting it or not. In this difficult time, please try to be respectful of the accounts of myself, my family and my friends. Mining our accounts for photos of dad, or judging me on the number of them is cruel and unnecessary.
Before the harrassment began, Zelda, in honor of her father, tweeted a quote from French writer and poet Antoine De Saint-Exupéry:
— Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) August 12, 2014
The quote reminded me of my husband posting a picture of his dad as a young man on Facebook as a remembrance after he died a few years ago. The outpouring of support and condolences touched us very deeply. It wasn’t physically tangible, but it felt like a lasting tribute. We were grateful to be able to connect with people without adding to the sadness and stress of the moment.
And griefers were nowhere to be seen.