William Christopher, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Liz Smith, Rick Parfitt, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Alan Thicke, Wayne Duncan, Anne Deveson, Peter Vaughan, Andrew Sachs, Robert Vaughn, Greg Lake, Peter Sumner, Leonard Cohen, Florence Henderson, Colonel Abrams, Pete Burns, Gene Wilder, Ross Higgins, Kenny Baker, Peter Collingwood, Arnold Palmer, Max Walker, Garry Marshall, Muhammad Ali, Fred Tomlinson, John Berry, Prince Rogers Nelson, Merle Haggard, Gareth Thomas, Ronnie Corbett, Garry Shandling, Jon English, Norman May, Ken Sparkes, Richard Neville, Harper Lee, Vivean Gray, Lady Susan Renouf, Lewis Fiander, Reg Grundy, Frank Kelly, Bruce Mansfield, Alan Rickman, Bob Ellis, Keith Emerson, Don Battye, Arthur Tunstall, David Bowie, Black, Lois Ramsey and Glenn Frey.
Question: what do these 54 names have in common?
Answer: they’re all names of people who died during 2016, as if you didn’t already know… or did you?
How many of those names do you actually recognise? They weren’t all “superstars” per se, but they were all noteworthy folk from the sporting, political and entertainment worlds. You might’ve seen something about their deaths online, in the press, or on TV. But which of them did you read about on social media?
I was familiar with the work or achievements of each person in that list, but it’s only a tiny sample of the full list of last year’s ‘celebrity deaths’.
That’s how it is when famous folk die these days. Social media makes some of them hyper-visible to us (which, in turn, makes us hyper-aware of them), while others go virtually unnoticed. But this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.
Facebook and Twitter users have long latched on to of-the-moment issues with relentlessness and tenacity that’s rarely seen offline. The repeated incidence of this short-term, intense focus on individual topics creates the impression that all manner of relatively uncommon things are occurring in unprecedented numbers all the time—celebrity deaths, drownings, one-punch attacks, lockout law-related business failures, US Presidential elections, and so on.
Every year social media spotlights the deaths of the most well-known of the well-known, simply because they’re the deaths that users react to en masse; conversely, every year the same users blithely overlook the deaths of tens of thousands of lesser-known but nonetheless notable people who, for whatever reason, weren’t on the social media radar—basically, that’s anyone without ‘legend’ status and/or anyone two or more generations older than the average user.
Admittedly, by the closing moments of twenty-sixteen it did seem that the Grim Reaper’s boney index finger had reached out to touch many more celebs than in recent years—but had it really?
Was last year actually that much worse than previous years, or did it just seem that way thanks to repeated social media über-focus? And were they really all so unexpected, or is it simply that an increasing number of the most recognisable faces of our time are now of an age when, inevitably, more of them are likely to die?
Coz, to be fair, 1996 was a pretty appalling year for notable deaths too. From a list that’s far longer in full, I recall being aware of more than sixty of them at the time, among whom were Gene Kelly, Audrey Meadows, McLean Stevenson, George Burns, Greer Garson, P.L.Travers, Jon Pertwee, Ella Fitzgerald, Cubby Broccoli, Margaux Hemingway, Claudette Colbert, Tupac Shakur, Dorothy Lamour, Ted Bessell, Beryl Reid, Spiro Agnew and Tiny Tim.
Things weren’t much better ten years later, with the list of headline deaths in 2006 including such luminaries as Lou Rawls, Shelley Winters, Don Knotts, Gene Pitney, Aaron Spelling, Syd Barrett, June Allyson, Mickey Spillane, Glenn Ford, Steve Irwin, Jane Wyatt, Jack Palance, Robert Altman, Joseph Barbera, James Brown and Gerald Ford.
Before the advent of Facebook and social media as we know it today, a celebrity death was something we heard about on the radio or saw on the TV news, we read about them in newspapers and magazines, and sometimes—increasingly so by the middle of last decade—we found out about them online. Then we talked about them at work, at school, or at the pub, back when word of mouth was still a thing.
Very occasionally, the death of a prominent figure—think JFK, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson—has generated once-in-a-generation mass outpourings of grief. But the majority of celebrity deaths were a topic of some limited conversation, generally only until a funeral was held, or TV and radio tributes had aired; beyond this, further discussion was typically relegated to “where were you when…?” conversations, some time in the distant future.
Today, social media is so inward-looking that it seems what’s happening right now is all that matters and is unprecedented. The past is often a distant and alien land, beyond the comprehension of those who don’t remember it or were never there. But history always repeats and, whether we remember it or not, it’s almost inevitable that most of what we see around us has happened before.
Social media regulars seemingly spent most of 2016 gasping, crying, honouring or grieving the loss of certain well-known individuals, as if celebrity deaths had never happened on such a scale before; more likely is that users had simply never experienced the intense social media focus on so many notable deaths in the one year.
Twenty-eight years ago, the world mourned the loss of just as many—if not more—significant figures as were farewelled in 2016. From across the spectrum of politics, sport, the arts and literature, and all the various elements of stage, screen and sound, Lucille Ball, Daphne Du Maurier, Samuel Beckett, Graham Chapman, Irving Berlin, Herbert von Karajan, Mel Blanc, Jim Backus, Salvador Dali, John Meillon, Bette Davis, Robert Mapplethorpe, Japanese Emperor Hirohito and Sir Laurence Olivier all died in 1989. All were giants of their respective times and crafts; as years of sad losses go, it was one of the saddest.
Two years later the roll-call was just as long; in 1991 we said au revoir to Freddie Mercury, Miles Davis, Michael Landon, Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), Gene Tierney, Danny Thomas, Gene Roddenberry, Fred MacMurray, Lee Remick, Natalie Schafer, Brad Davis, Robert Maxwell, Irwin Allen, Martha Graham, Sheila Florance, Gerry Davis, Frank Capra, Serge Gainsbourg, Carmine Coppola, Margot Fonteyn, Graham Greene, Jean Arthur, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Pertwee and Joan Caulfield. You may not remember or know all of those names but, as in 1989, they were all significant figures in their respective fields.
Arguably, if people had responded to celebrity deaths in the 80s and 90s with the same emotional fervour as posters, sharers and tweeters today, we might’ve always felt that we were constantly being bombarded by news of celebrity deaths; if that intense, widespread focus had always been there, there mightn’t be such a strong sense that everything happening today is the biggest, most, best or worst that’s ever been.
It’s really about keeping things in perspective and recognising that, as much as we might want it to be, there’s not much about the ever-expanding bubble we inhabit today that’s especially unique to the here and now.
Instead of obsessing about the minutiae of the present, perhaps we should look back a little? Maybe tipping our hats to what’s gone before and attempting to understand the past could be the best way for us to prepare for what’s yet to come?
So here’s a great big “RIP” and “vale” to everyone who died during recent years without being mourned on social media. Irrespective of how few tweets they might’ve generated, their deaths were not insignificant and they didn’t go entirely unnoticed.