Dead famous: microblogging and morbidity

Another thought-provoking post from Joanne McNeil of Tomorrow Museum sees her musing on the way Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle and citizen journalism have escalated the death of minor celebrities to the status of the fashionable small-talk of the digerati:

Every day on Twitter, news of another death. Les Paul, John Hughes, Farrah Fawcett, those big names, but also the editor at this publication, the founder of this startup, the people who we might not all know, but someone you know knew them and they are using the space to remember them.

Sure, Maria Shriver’s euology made me sit up straighter and think I want to be like that. But, I mean, was I supposed to be shocked that Eunice Kennedy passed on? I guess it’s small talk of a darker sort. You could talk about the weather or whose heart stopped.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to sign on Twitter, precisely for that reason. What if David Cronenberg died? Or Bill Callahan? Sophia Coppola, Rachel Maddow, Tilda Swinton, anyone I like.


I still think the web has the capacity to bring out the best and the worst in us. We’re going to look back at the spectacle of Jade Goody’s wedding earlier this year and think how innocent it was, how damn near respectful people were to her and her family. It’s all downhill from here. Death is just something you think about until the next 140 character tweet appears.

I don’t think it’s going to get all that much worse – and if it does, we won’t be appalled by it, because the frog will be boiled slowly – but I’ve long been fascinated by the visceral sense of Zeitgeist that working all day on the web has given me, and there’s definitely a change in my attitudes to different sorts of news. (That said, my complete disinterest in manufactured minor celebrities remains strong, which I’m quite pleased about.)

It’s almost as if dying is the best way to get the whole world to take notice of you these days. But how much harder is it to disappear from view completely? In another of Wired’s more interesting journalistic projects of late, they’re sending off Evan Ratliff with instructions to drop “off the grid” for thirty days, and offering a prize of $5,000 to anyone who finds him using the publically available data trail that he’ll generate. I’ll not be surprised if someone snags him pretty quick  (unless he has some sort of ace in the hole for staying incognito), but the story promises to be interesting whatever the outcome, especially in light of other recent disappearances, successful, deliberate or otherwise.