Social networks are a wonderful place to see anthropology in practice. The idea that an online community is a close group of people who influence each other’s real lives is obviously a trifle farfetched, but it would not be a stretch to say that such communities have, or are in the process of, substituting real life peer groups.
An illustration of such would be the mass hysteria that follows the death of somebody (in)famous. In the modern day, this trend probably started with the mass grief orgy that accompanied Diana’s death in a Paris tunnel. It was hailed by sociologists and observers as ‘identification’, the ‘focusing of pent up grief’ and other fancy things. In reality, it was little more than mindless mob hysteria fuelled by the two penny English Press that painted Tony Blair (of all people!) as the conscience of the Nation and the Queen and her husband as anachronistic dinosaurs for wanting to mourn her death in private. ‘Show us you have a heart’ went the popular headline. The redoubtable Christopher Hitchens acidly remarked that it was all too much fuss over ‘a talentless tart who just happened to be thrust into the public eye’.
That was in 1997. Things have gotten worse, much worse, in the years since. When Amy Winehouse, a rather ordinary drug junkie, ended up where most of her ilk do, it led to hundreds of people assembling outside her house and toasting her with booze. The irony in the deceased being a chronic alcoholic was lost on, or conveniently ignored, by all. Michael Jackson was pilloried incessantly by the media for his alleged fondness for young boys. When the same Michael Jackson died, the reaction would have convinced a neutral observer that far from being a child molester, he was a second Messiah. The sordid procession continues what with Steve Jobs and Whitney Houston being the latest additions to this list of great souls prematurely dead.
This is by no means a phenomenon confined to the Western World. People who had never heard a Jagjit Singh ghazal or seen a Dev Anand movie joined the online breast beating that followed their deaths with gusto as if the rhythmic siyaapa would somehow convince the world that their grief was genuine. The funniest bit was a post I saw lamenting the ‘premature’ passing away of ‘Mehandi Hassan’. Oh for fuckssake! If you have to be a wannabe, you may as well back it up with some basic Wiki research.
The Why So question begs to be answered here. Is it because in an increasingly interconnected world, inherent human empathy and grief just needs an outlet to be displayed? So one need not know a person to feel bad about his conking off. You can feel vicariously sad about the whole deal because, what with six degrees of separation, he was probably closer to you than you think! Balder and dash. Wannabe-ness (I love the Yankees for these words) needs no reason. In an increasingly dumbed down world, there is an Orwellian classification of human emotions. To put it in facebook language:
Post about soldiers/patriots: Like.
Post against government: Like plus an abusive comment
Death of a notable: RIP, you will be missed.
Death of Kim Kardashian: Condescending line followed by a heartfelt RIP
One need not think on his own. This ready chart to express facebook emotions, while limited, factors in most eventualities. The straw brained nincompoops who anyway have an attention span of a mayfly are incapable of processing anything else. It also helps that this shows them as well informed people up to date with breaking news of the Shahrukh-punches-Kunder kind. Now a “Greek vote saves EU” post would not only require some thinking but is also unlikely to appeal to the fellow nitwits who frequent their profiles. GK is the new sexy alright, but it has to be sexed up too! I miss the 1990s.