It’s never good when someone calls you on the phone to tell you that someone you love has died. It’s like those scenes on TV shows where the police or the White House are rushing to notify the family of the deceased before the news breaks so that they don’t learn about it from the television.
I’ve had it happen for three people in my life who weren’t close friends or family members: George Carlin, Steve Jobs, and Prince. In each of those cases, someone heard the news first and thought of me. This may be the sweetest and most melancholy kind of kindness. Today, it’s been a year since Prince died.
Prince made music for as long as I was alive. His self-titled album, made when he was still a teenager, was released the week before I was born. My mother, who loved Prince as much as I did, listened to “I Wanna Be Your Lover” over and over again when I was in utero. Prince and his music were Facts of the Universe, like the ancient Greeks believed in Zeus and his thunderbolts.
The only star as big and bright was Michael Jackson, and you couldn’t go into your room and put on headphones to listen to Michael Jackson’s dirty songs where nobody else could listen. It was a different kind of intimacy and intensity.
Added to my collection: 3.5" floppy given to press when Prince changed his name. Contains a font w/ one symbol in it. pic.twitter.com/mNL0eOHDGI— Anil Dash (@anildash) June 23, 2014
Michael Jackson’s and Whitney Houston’s deaths felt different: a Kaddish for lost dreams in childhood, a renewed awareness of how fragile these larger-than-life figures always were. Lou Reed’s and David Bowie’s deaths felt different: mourning my teenage self, my teachers and heroes. Prince’s death was like losing the love of my life.
The web has an unusual and still-evolving relationship with death and mourning. People have always used it to memorialize people they loved, and to learn more about them. (One of my first contacts on the web was someone looking for information on a relative with my first and last name who went missing in action in Vietnam.)
But the systems of the web were slow to catch up. Social networks built to stalk college classmates only gradually learned how to deal with members’ deaths. Who owns or can access your virtual assets and information after you die?… It depends. The mechanisms we’ve built aren’t built for this. Hopes for the Singularity aside, there’s no disrupting death.
We are inventing new rituals of public mourning online. And when it comes to death, rituals may matter as much or more than network topologies and the law. In many ways, these rituals replace older ones we’ve lost. Grief once expressed in public via mourning clothes, black armbands, and semi-public funerals is now being hashed out on the web.
“I really believe that a lot of these social media mourning rituals are popping up because people aren’t able to mourn in public spaces the way that they used to,” says Candi Cann, an assistant professor at Baylor University and author of “Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century.” “People have this need to be recognised as grievers.”
We can’t always be with family, scattered across countries and continents. We can’t always confide in old lovers, our relationships fraught and fractured. We can’t take off from work to curl up and cry in private without consequence. We can’t all make pilgrimages to leave votive offerings and memorabilia at the sites of death.
But we can tell friends and strangers how we feel. We can point them to the things this person made that changed our lives. We can let them know, friends and strangers both, that it is okay for them, for us, for all of us to feel, to mourn the person and what that person meant. To mourn the part of us that will never be the same without the other person’s presence exerting a magnetic pull on us from across the planet.
(With thanks to Anil Dash)