I was on the KFOG Morning Show yesterday, and like all things that require me to think on my feet, I’m not very satisfied with my answers. I mean, it was totally fun and fine, but now I find myself running over the questions I was asked and revising them for nobody. Specifically I was thinking about Steve Jobs. The host asked me what I thought about people mourning Steve Jobs on Facebook. I rarely ever mourn for celebrities. Although I thought Steve Jobs was a great man. I saw a really inspiring speech he gave to Stanford graduates, even though he never graduated himself. I’ve owned several Macs, iPods, iPhones, and other Apple products. But this didn’t at all make me feel entitled to comment on someone else’s life and legacy. So I didn’t. I scrolled through the links, videos, and tributes, but I said nothing.
Some people left flowers in the doorway of the Apple store in downtown San Francisco. Some people didn’t know where to go, or how to express all the pain and loss they were feeling for a great man dying young. Whenever someone dies, we are immediately confronted with our own mortality. This scares the shit out of us. We rarely talk about dying or grief, even though it’s a reality we all eventually face. It’s considered impolite. We only talk about it like it’s something we should recover from. Like an illness. Social media, perhaps more than any new technology, allows us to feel close to people we hardly know. I think this is truly wonderful sometimes, that we have a medium to publicly express our grief, but it also leads to a lot of confusion, and big, misplaced feelings.
When Amy Winehouse died a few months ago, it happened at the same time as the bombings in Norway. People on Facebook were pissed that Amy Winehouse, a junkie punchline, was taking the spotlight away from the 80 or so innocent victims of a terrorist attack. This reaction shocked me. As if there is a death hierarchy, as if someone who was struggling with addiction didn’t deserve an ounce of sympathy. (PS: A toxicology report revealed Amy Winehouse had no illegal substances in her body when she died.) Tragedy isn’t a zero-sum game. Mourning one loss doesn’t detract from the loss of others. These kinds of reactions though, the vitriol, the blaming, the sense of entitlement we feel about people and events so far removed from our everyday realities, are becoming increasingly common thanks to social media. I know for a fact that none of my Facebook friends would ever say, “Eh, we all saw that coming,” in response to a death of someone they actually knew. So what is it about the medium, the third-party distance that seems to absolve us from our otherwise functioning sense of humanity?
This is what I’ve been thinking about. I don’t mean to belittle or challenge the way others react to situations online. But I am curious about how technology is changing us. If Facebook gets us talking about death in a substantial way, maybe the confusion and anger are worthwhile.
I’ve been thinking too about connection, and that in order to be successful in social media, you have to care about helping other people. You have to give as much as get. And yeah, I know the Internet is mostly made of cats and repurposed memes from the 80s, but what makes things like Twitter meaningful are those glimpses of community, when you can reach out on behalf of someone else and say, “This moved me.”
This week’s AfterEllen column could be summed up in two words: Walk away. But, of course, there’s lots more to it than that.
A friend of mine recently said she felt like she didn’t know how to set up her writerly self in a new city. “What did you do?” she asked. I told her that I spent the first five months here watching The Bachelor. In there, my dad also got cancer. And my relationship fell apart. San Francisco taught me that a lot of things in my life had to end before I could begin again. And the only way I knew how to do that was to write.
As Steve Jobs put it, “[D]eath is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”