PSH & Electronic Grief


I started Superbowl Sunday thinking about what supplies I still needed to buy, went online and derailed into shock.  Philip Seymour Hoffman was dead of a heroin overdose.  I took a moment to process the news, felt a moment of anger and then a burst of sadness, called my wife, and made a clear decision:

I would need to avoid Facebook and Twitter for several days.

I should get some disclosures out of the way.  I was raised in the Southwest but live in New York, so I have both hardcore conservatives and liberals in my circles of “Friends.”  I’m used to seeing both extremes in my social media so casual intolerance no longer surprises me, which is why I don’t allow friends of friends to comment on my posts.  It used to be that just about every item on my wall became a flame war.  I work in theater and film, and many people I know have worked with, crossed paths with, or were acquaintances of Mr. Hoffman.  I spent three years paying for graduate film school by working in art programs that served drug addiction programs. I’ve spent more time around addicts than most ever will.  And early last year, that knowledge of addiction turned more personal when my nephew was orphaned by a heroin overdose.  So I know a bit about what’s involved here, personally, professionally, artistically and physically.

What I also know is that social media dictates there are right and wrong responses to untimely death.  These responses are self-regulating, relentlessly harsh, and as constrained as Kabuki theater.  Despite my knowledge on the different aspects of this story, my perspective wouldn’t be welcome in the public discourse.  The inclusiveness of social media only exists if you think and say what everyone else does.  Critical thought, nuance, and dark humor – all of the qualities my creative community values in its theater is shunned online.

Let me be clear – I’m not defending asinine commenters, jokes in poor taste, or the ill-conceived dig at the unfortunate.  But I was shocked at how colleagues turned on colleagues for using the same gallows humor in their status updates and tweets as they do in their plays.  There was such a savagery in publically calling out of friends that I wonder how many relationships ended in the days after Mr. Hoffman died.

Those who dared to explore thoughts on addiction and death in a more nuanced way were equally pilloried.  We have three choices: discuss the tragedy of a talented life cut short, ponder the future of Mr. Hoffman’s children, or describe the “demons” of addiction.  Righteous anger struck down those who thought there might be something more to say.

My unease at how we grieve on social media has been growing for some time.  Pete Seeger’s death was the first time I could articulate the dread I felt at going online to see what smart, funny and creative friends were saying.  Instead I skipped it and felt much better, only glancing back well after the fact to examine the patterns that always emerge.

After a notable death, first comes the wave of links to the tragedy.  It once fascinated me to see which sites my friends used for their news, but now I only wonder as friend after friend posts the same information as everyone else before them.  Almost always the news comes with a minimal and bland, uninformative tag: “Shocking.”  “Sad.”  “Dammit.”  It’s too late for these tardy posts to mark one as a thought leader.  Is it an attempt to not be left out, to join the circle of those in the know?

Next comes the hagiography.  As news outlets churn out “Greatest _____ of a generation” think pieces, so too will people rush to link to them.  Friends also pen their own earnest praise, then go through their updates “liking” everyone else’s praise.  Everyone agrees with everyone and everyone likes likes likes everything.  Facebook reveals itself to be a gated community built entirely of mirrors that are patrolled not by cops but window-washers, scrubbing away anything that doesn’t reflect our own marvelous views back at us.  Here’s where the punishment happens when someone dares to say something different.

My discomfort grows at reading all of this quickly-jotted thoughtfulness, but it’s the third phase that makes me most uneasy.  This is the electronic wake, where everyone swaps stories about the deceased.  In theory this is good.  We are no longer constrained by time and space to publicly mourn and share in our grief.  A few who truly knew Mr. Hoffman shared personal memories of a fallen friend, genuine anecdotes that give a glimpse into a life that was lived.

But the majority of “anecdotes” were shallow, fleeting and insubstantial: “I met psh (psh!  Really you were on a lowercase initials basis with him?) at an audition, he was cool.”  “He came to see my show once, and we chatted after.  He seemed nice.”

These illuminate nothing more than a momentary point where two entities crossed paths.  Who are these fragments for?  Who do they help?  Clearly not Mr. Hoffman’s family, who are unlikely to see them or feel much comfort if they did.  It’s hard to imagine anyone who knew Mr. Hoffman personally would get much out of the observation that he was tall.  Are these encounters just an affirmation of our own existence?  “Look at me, I met someone great once?”

If that’s the case, these posts start to resemble something else Facebook and Twitter are known for – bragging.  It feels like a macabre version of posting selfies from the beach or humble-bragging on Twitter “So honored to be chosen to sing at the #metsgame.”  It’s all part of the curating we do online to make our lives seem more compelling than they really are.  I realize that’s the new normal; we live in an age of perpetual self-promotion and making sure we take of t.  Some people will probably read this and think “What’s the big deal, if I shared a laugh with psh at Starbucks, I’d have tweeted that too!”

I’m disturbed that these posts seem to be about garnering attention for oneself in a time of sadness, and I don’t want to know that about a person I actually like. (That word has become so corrupted!) These updates maybe tagged #philipseymourhoffman but really they’re about #mememe.  And if that’s all we make available to ourselves at the electronic wake, please forgive me if I skip the service.