Oops we did it again: (Re)mourning Chinua Achebe in the age of social media

Early this morning, social media was awash with grief over the death of legendary African writer Chinua Achebe. A New York Times obituary on Achebe circulated across timelines with comments like "We lost a good one" and "RIP". All valid sentiments of course. Except for the fact that none of the sharers seemed to know one tiny fact: Achebe died two years ago, in 2013.

They needn't have looked too far, really. If they looked at their own timeline, they would have seen that the NYT link being shared very clearly showed a 2013 date stamp. But in the age of social media and its evil twin, the clickbait headline, all of us are guilty of the crime of reflex sharing. See - react - share.

 Oops we did it again: (Re)mourning Chinua Achebe in the age of social media


Our reaction to any big news event is public. We all rush to have a view, especially so when tragedy strikes. All the better if a public figure is involved. We all want to get in on the grief parade. Show the world that we are in tune with current events, and that every significant event has an impact on our lives too.

And we do it again and again. When fantasy author Terry Pratchett died, popular quotes of his and images from his popular Discworld series were all over Facebook and Twitter. How many of these people actually read his books is highly debatable. Firstpost senior editor Sandip Roy noticed a similar trend when Maya Angelou passed away, when his social media timeline was flooded with her quotes. Not that everyone got their due diligence right.

"Of course a few of us trip in our haste to be the early mourner at this virtual wake. A good friend confessed she routinely confused Maya Angelou with Toni Morrison. Even worse others on Twitter thanked Angelou for refusing to sit in the back of the bus so people could be free today. I am not sure if Rosa Parks would have been shocked or amused".

"Once you faked sorrow. Now you fake familiarity", he said of the phenomenon.

Steve Jobs died? Same story.

"Beneath this very public show of emotion, one can’t help but wonder if there is any real feeling. Do people really do it because they care or do they do it because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do? Or is it just the need to feel one with the crowd?", wondered Firstpost Sports editor Ashish Magotra at the time.

In this instance though, we really seem to have outdone ourselves. We're pretty sure that a lot of the people who shared the NYT link and beat their social media chests with grief today had most likely done the same two years ago when he really passed away -- and just forgotten about it. In the endless river of RIPs, it is easy to lose track those you have so loudly mourned on your TL. And while a section of people who did remember that Achebe had died two years ago may snigger at their timelines in superior fashion, the truth is that this phenomenon says something about all of us and the way we are evolving to respond to the constant flow of information that comes to us via the Internet.

Given the speed at which we acquire information, we often have very little time to parse through it all. So more often than not, we use social media as a filter. If our friends post something, we are more likely to believe it to be true. But then we feel the need to react to it as well, whether or not it is relevant to us or not.

Will the Achebe incident cause us to slow down and mend the error of our ways? Unlikely. We'll just use the opportunity to laugh a little at our friends or ourselves, and move on. Till the next celebrity dies of course. That will bring a whole new round of public grief.


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Updated Date: Mar 23, 2015 15:10:18 IST