Death in The Time of Social Media

Social media has made us all professional mourners. The sudden demise of noted fashion designer Wendell Rodricks brought out that aspect of human personality to the fore.

Throngs of people suddenly put on their social-media face and started tweeting or posting about how influential, inspiring or ingenious the deceased was in his lifetime. And most people felt obliged to join this ‘griefathon’ so that they don’t appear ignorant in the eyes of their peers. After all, how will people know you care about something unless you submit a long post on your Facebook wall, describing in detail about your love for some person you had probably not heard of a day ago?

There is an old tradition in Rajasthan, wherein professional mourners, popularly known as ‘rudali’, would turn up at funerals of people they had never met. They would then wail uncontrollably to pay their respects to the dead. Something similar is playing out on social media as well.

Some days, it just feels like everyone is part of a race to see who grieves first (and most). For instance, after the sudden and tragic death of Kobe Bryant, almost everyone we know posted at least one picture of his, with either a monologue or a short ‘RIP’. And for most of them, Kobe Bryant never featured in any of their conversations before. Yet, all of them were compelled to publicly announce their sadness, and then move on, only to religiously post on the next death.

The other thing that emerges out of this is how we all conveniently forget the complicated legacies of the strangers we mourn for. Amid the thousands of mourners memorializing Kobe Bryant's life, there were a few who shared the story of the forgotten rape allegation against him, way back from 2003. Maybe it is just easy to forgive our sporting heroes or the ones we love? Or is it because Bryant’s case arose at a time when social media wasn’t so omnipresent? Imagine if the rape allegation against Kobe Bryant had come up during the #MeToo wave. What do you think would have happened?

We always lean towards bashing the living and mourning the dead, even if the dead carried a complex legacy that deserved no forgiveness. Take for instance the death of RK Pachauri, a climate crusader, a visionary, and also someone who was accused of sexual assault. He spent decades convincing the world that climate change was real, and had an invaluable contribution to the space. Allegations of sexual assault destroyed his much-celebrated career, albeit only till he died. When he passed away, we only chose to focus on his sad death, and completely chose to ignore the dark realities of his legacy.

Social media has taken away our sense of judgement in times like these. We think that everyone’s default reaction to someone passing away should be shock or grief, or both. We are quick to judge if a person doesn’t choose to feel either of those emotions. We shame those who even tinker with a different reality of the deceased’s life. And that is what compels a lot of people to force the ‘right’ reaction on public platforms.

The reality of people like Kobe Bryant or RK Pachauri is much more complex than we choose to believe. We will readily bash someone who is alive and has a chance to explain themselves, but social media will never give you the time to process the death of a person bearing a complex legacy. Technology has changed how we grieve, and there seems to be no way to change that.

(The author of this article is Mr Pranshu Sikka, Founder & CEO, The Pivotals)