How Social Media Changed Celebrity Deaths in 2016

There weren't necessarily more celebrity deaths, just more collective mourning on the internet.

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Jan 6 2017, 6:33pm

All images from Wikipedia Commons

If you've logged onto Facebook or Twitter in the past year, chances are you've seen someone's accusations that 2016 "killed off" all of our favorite celebrities. There was David Bowie and Prince, Muhammad Ali and Gene Wilder, Harper Lee and Leonard Cohen. I mean, sure, beloved people die every year, but this was the first year when people truly rallied around the idea that the year itself was cursed. Someone even started a campaign to "save" Betty White from the death trap of 2016.

According to data from Google Trends, the death of David Bowie on January 10, 2016 coincided with the first spike in people googling "2016 celebrity deaths." Then, the death of Prince on April 21 led to what would be the largest spike in the year for this search term, until the week of December 25.

But were there actually more celebrities dying than usual? Even with all 12 months accounted for, the close of the year did not bring about a consensus on the answer to this question—mainly because it hinges on determining whether or not someone is truly a "celebrity." (The BBC's obituaries editor said yes, the year had been more deadly than usual; TIME said no, there had actually been a decrease in entertainer deaths from the year before.) Just a few days before the new year, Snopes tabulated notable deaths, culled from eight publications between 2013 and 2016. Three of the outlets they reviewed put 2016 in first place; five did not.

Regardless of how many celebrities did in fact die last year, it's safe to say that we collectively felt it more. And that's because 2016 was the year mourning celebrities went viral. 

If your friends' Facebook and Twitter posts aren't evidence enough, just look on Legacy.com, the world's largest provider of online obituaries. An analysis of Legacy.com's yearly top 11 most viewed notable deaths and obituaries charts from the past nine years reveals that the 2016 crop had the most guestbook entries since they started the annual lists in 2008. The only year that came close was 2009, when Michael Jackson, Patrick Swayze, Ted Kennedy, and Farrah Fawcett died. A representative from Legacy.com told me that on top of that, the current 2016 total "will certainly grow" now that the holidays are over and people view and sign the guestbooks for the year's later deaths, like Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, and George Michael, who will likely keep interest high into January 2017.

Some scholars have argued that the memorialization of celebrity deaths online is actually responsible for a large scale shift in the way we mourn. In a recent article in the journal Celebrity Studies, researchers Gisela Gil-Egui, Rebecca Kern-Stone, and Abbe E. Forman explain: "The information age is bringing death and mourning rituals back to our homes, via broadcast and interactive media. Just as the public came to know celebrities intimately through mass media, they mourn them in the same places: newspapers, television, and now the internet. Members of society collectively remember a public figure who played some important role in their lives."

Heather Servaty-Seib, a Purdue University professor who researches grief and loss, told me that this act of "collectively remembering" is something that is not typically seen when a non-celebrity dies. "A whole society—culture, subgroup—loses an important attachment figure. There can be a kind of connection and bonding in the grief," she told me. For her, the death of Prince was "the most significant celebrity death of the year," which led to her being contacted by old friends she hadn't spoken to in years. "We thought of each other and shared time together connected with Prince's music and even going to his club together," she said. Given how beloved and popular musicians like David Bowie and Prince were, there were no doubt countless other similar connections made in 2016 when their deaths became known.

So how much has that changed in 2016? Seven years may not seem like a lot, but when Michael Jackson died in 2009, large social networks were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are today. Facebook had fewer than 400 million users (versus 1.79 billion as of September 2016), and Twitter had 18 million (versus 313 million as of June 2016). It has become incredibly popular to share Youtube videos of celebrities when they die—so much so that when Prince died and his music was almost nowhere to be found online, the Daily Beast published an explainer for the bewildered masses. When Michael Jackson died, YouTube was just emerging as a popular platform to watch piano-playing cats and music videos. Back then, there were no emojis on iPhone keyboards; today, there's a memorial David Bowie emoji.

In an April article for TIME, writer Justin Worland offered his own suggestions for why, in 2016, it felt like more and more celebrities were dying, even if the numbers didn't quite add up. It was because, he theorized, of the celebrities' magnitude of fame, pure chance, a more diverse media, or because it was the end of an era—that this generation of celebrities "revolutionized popular entertainment" and were among the first to reach mega-stardom. It's only fitting, then, that we'd collectively mourn them more online.

"End of an era" is an explanation Servaty-Seib seemed to agree with most, but in a different way than Worland proposed. "I will never be the same person as I was in college when I heard my first Indigo Girls song, 'Secure Yourself to Heaven.' The song reminds me of who I was—with nostalgia—and reminds me that they were an important part of my self-development. When they die, I will grieve not only the idea that they cannot create any more music, but also… what?  I think I will grieve again for the loss of who I was at that time. I can never go back."

Follow Simon Davis on Twitter.

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