Social Networking and Public Grief: the Death of Michael Jackson and the End of an Era

Posted in The Gnovis Blog


In the past, opportunities for individual participation in public rituals of mass grieving were few and far between.  Social networking technologies have allowed for a new form of public mourning to emerge. As the text message sent to my cell phone by 32 year-old brother read, “Michael Jackson is dead!” and virtually everyone who updated their Facebook status or Twitter account to reflect that fact participated in a novel ritual of public mourning.

Michael Jackson was the grandest performer in a bygone era where grandiose celebrity and mass marketing dominated both the collective cultural consciousness and the mass media.  Given that Jackson was a complicated culture figure who died in the “new media” era, the public display of mourning following Jackson’s death has manifested itself in both predictable and novel ways. 

Predictably, there has been a resurrection of Jackson’s music career in the form of skyrocketing record sales and many hyperbolic claims to his brilliance as an “artist” and a “musical genius.”  Also, predictably, there was a spectacular and widely watched memorial  at the basketball stadium of the Los Angeles Lakers; in fact, there was so much public interest that most of the major news outlets went to 24/7 Jackson coverage before, after, and during the memorial.  

While aspects of the public mourning of Jackson are easily identifiable as familiar social rituals by mass publics when confronted with the death of a cultural icon, there have been novel emergences as well.  For example, in the hours following his death, there was so much interest in communicating and learning about Jackson that many websites were crippled by heavy user traffic.  Additionally, just as it was with my own experience, many individuals first received the news through tweets, texts, or facebook updates from friends, acquaintances, or family members via social networking websites or phone.  Most importantly, when thinking about rituals of public mourning, many used these same tools to mass publish their immediate reactions upon learning of Jackson’s death.     

Mourning the loss of another human being is a unique and individualized process.  When attempting to understand reactions to death in “real” life, psychology offers reliable taxonomies to understand normal behaviors after the sudden loss of a family member or friend (for example, coping strategies like task-focused behaviors, emotion focused behaviors, avoidance focused behaviors, etc.). Similar taxonomies do not exist for predicting individual reactions to the news of the death of a celebrity of the magnitude of Michael Jackson.   The public’s relationship to Jackson—or any celebrity—is never divorced from its conception as a mediated construct.  Consequently, the closeness we feel toward an entertainer like Jackson is a simulacrum of the shared closeness we have—or lack—with those around us in our everyday lives. 

In the past, mourning Jackson’s death through the media would have been limited to consuming mass mediated memorials and tributes on television, print, or radio.  With the emergence and saturation of small media technology, a new genre of public mourning has emerged.   

As one can imagine, a cursory search of the tweets from the day of Jackson’s death reveals a variety of reactions, ranging from the simple and sweet:


“RIP Michael Jackson, you’ll always live on in your music in our music and our



To the cynical and sarcastic:


“Michael Jackson died the way he lived….Surrounded by white gloves and people in masks”


To even the genuine—albeit, perhaps, melodramatically genuine—expression

of what appears to be actual grief:


“This is the worst day of my life….. MICHAEL JACKSON IS DEAD!!! ITS

UNBELIEVALBE!!!! Im just soo sad and depressed!!!! (sic)”


While all of the responses to Jackson’s death arise from the subjectivity of individuals leading wholly separate lives, all are connected by the impulse to use a form of mass expression to solidify social bonds around a shared cultural event.  All responses are participants in the public’s collective grieving over the faded star of an influential cultural icon; perhaps more centrally, all responses are meditations on the fading of our own once bright youth as well. 

In the night following his death, Jackson’s music–his most enduring cultural contribution–was a ubiquitous fog that descended over, what seemed like, every square inch of Washington D.C.  Thinking back about that cool summer night, I can still clearly remember the notes of “Billie Jean,” “Beat it,” and “Rock With You” on the stereos of all the passing cars.   I’ll always remember the jukebox at a bar that night and how it was full to the brim with all of Jackson’s songs, the same songs that were the soundtrack to my long-gone childhood.  More than anything else, though, I’ll remember the moment I read the message from my brother and how it took my breath away.