When Death Goes Viral

What do Adrienne Rich, Earl Scruggs, and Ron Burgundy have in common? Well, two of them are dead. But all of them are trending topics on Twitter.

Hugo Schwyzer makes an interesting observation: His students did not know who Betty Friedan was when she died in 2006, before Twitter was a thing. All of them knew who Adrienne Rich was, “instantly.” Rich, in death, went viral.

Case in point, perhaps: I confess the name “Earl Scruggs” only rang a faint bell of familiarity — I clicked on his name in Twitter’s trending topics, and learned instantly he’s the banjo legend behind The Bevery Hillbillies theme song, and he died yesterday.

Would Schwyzer’s students have recognized Rich without Twitter? It’s hard to say, precisely — I suspect Rich has a higher baseline fame level than Friedan (or not, but that would only prove the point more). But it’s not hard to argue that more people are aware of Rich through Twitter than would’ve been otherwise, and that’s almost entirely a consequence of her death. In other words, I suspect she wouldn’t have been trending for nearly any other reason.

Harry Crews is an amazing writer, with a fair level of recognition. He just died, and I learned about his death through Twitter. I wonder if he’s going to be a trending topic.

Posthumous fame is a phenomenon as old as fame itself. But 15 seconds of fame, 15 seconds after you die? That’s something a little newer, perhaps. Trayvon Martin died on February 26. It’s March 29. Even though tweets still come in with his name nearly every second, he’s no longer a trending topic because of the way Twitter enforces freshness. (Tthe rationale being Justin Bieber would perpetually trend, saying unspeakable things about our culture, I suppose. And you’ve also gotta make room for those promoted trends.)

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to die, now that so much of our presence is disconnected from the physical space. We might live forever, in a way. I am my Facebook profile, sort of. And this is likely going to only grow more profoundly true. (I organized a whole editorial package about this on Gizmodo, once upon a time, and it may be the best thing I’ve ever done.)

But what’s just as interesting, maybe, is that there’s clearly something a little viral about death. Twitter was crushed under the news of Michael Jackson’s death. Whitney Houston overwhelmed it last month. And no fake news seems to spread as fast, and as often, as reports of one’s demise. Maybe it’s because we’re inherently fascinated with death — “if it bleeds, it leads” holds true, even on Twitter — or maybe, more generously, this is our version of standing in line at a funeral parade. A quick hit of mourning. I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be with the prospect of so many people so ready to line up at my funeral, though.

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