Why we feel compelled to spew on social media when our favorite celebrities die
As 2016 comes to a close, so too does the never-ending barrage of Facebook posts and Tweets about how awful 2016 was.
Is death sad? Fuck yeah it is. Loss is hard to deal with. But are you personally losing anything? Most fell in love with somebody’s art, not them as a person. When an icon dies, their art is still here. Their body leaves, but what was given to the world never will.
So again … what did we lose? And why does everyone feel a compulsion to project into the endless void about how sad we are when someone we didn’t know personally is gone? The answer is: it's complicated.
Even if you scoffed at a friend for bemoaning the untimely death of Prince or Bowie or George Michael, you probably got hit like a ton of bricks when you found out Carrie Fisher died. Or Willy Wonka, or any one of the other celebrities that have passed this year.
And then the shoe was on the other foot, because you couldn’t stop yourself from taking to Facebook to post your feels, and about how much Princess Leia becoming a Force ghost affected you, personally.
Doesn’t it just seem a little narcissistic and self-centered? Well, yeah, admittedly, it is.
There’s a name for this kind of behavior in psychology. It’s a concept called, “basking in reflected glory” (also known as BIRGing).
BIRGing is a self-serving cognition — an impulse to associate yourself with somebody successful, in the hope that their success becomes your own accomplishment in the eyes of others.
Essentially, affiliating yourself with somebody else’s success is enough to stimulate self glory. Part of it is that you’re boosting your own ego by identifying with accomplishments that aren’t your own, and expecting to be rewarded for your fandom.
The logic goes a little something like this: This person was awesome, and I really liked this person, and if everyone knows that, they’ll think I’m fucking awesome too.
In a 2012 interview with The Washington Post, Spee Kosloff, an experimental psychologist at California State University at Fresno who studies the public’s relationship with famous people, had a few enlightening words on the subject,
“By our association with [celebrities], we can BIRG and gain a feeling of cosmic specialness,” he said.
Basically, you feel a compulsion to remind every one of your Facebook friends that you specifically identified with whoever died, and in a way, the tragedy is happening to you. “It’s inflating your own personal tie to the thing that makes you exceptional,” added Kosloff.
Maybe you saw every movie, listened to every album, or maybe the deceased was just 'a really important part of your childhood.' But you felt that you appreciated the art like no one else did. It felt personal. And because it feels personal, you have an emotional investment. Their art is a part of your personality, and it’s important to you that people know that. It’s one of the things that you felt made you special.
What’s personal to us as individuals helps us associate with one another. The death of a celebrity can trigger something called social solidarity. It’s not so much about being legitimately sad or grieving over George Michael. Or Prince. Or David Bowie. But rather, it’s a longing to connect with people of the same interest.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that what social media is all about? The feeling that the world revolves around you, as born out of a need to be understood and acknowledged? To build an identity and then connect with people based on your similar interests?
Social media invades every aspect of our lives, and if you’re younger, you might only associate your identity with what you post online. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest — these all have the highest percentage of users under the age of 30. So it speaks to reason that younger users, who grew up with social media, only know how to forge their identities through an online avatar.
Particularly, Facebook invites users to show off as much as possible. Most everyone uses their real name, gives all their personal information, shares their interests and is invited to share how they’re feeling right now. After all, “pretending to be anything or anyone isn’t allowed,” claims Facebook.
So why shouldn’t we take every possible opportunity to further define our personalities? Even if that’s through someone’s death?
Yes, it’s superficial and morbid to make yet another abstractly tragic event all about you … but it’s also a human reaction and speaks to our need to be understood by others.