Why Twitter Makes Us Care When Even Minor Celebrities Die

What Michael Clarke Duncan Tells Us About A New Culture of Eulogy

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What is it you told the world when Princess Di died? What about JFK, or John Lennon, or Lucille Ball?

Unless you wrote one of their eulogies, you probably have no idea what you told anyone then. If you remember the passing of such an icon, you probably remember how you felt. Perhaps, if you went to Strawberry Fields in Central Park when the legendary Beatle was taken from us, you even remember what you did.

Now, many people have a record of what they say whenever a celebrity passes. Social media loves a good celebrity death. That's not just true for artists such as Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens. It happens now even after the passing of B- and C-list celebrities.

Consider the case of Michael Clarke Duncan. Rotten Tomatoes lists 48 film credits for him. Among those rated, only four rank a passing "fresh" on the tomatometer; his last seven films average a score of 26.3 out of 100. One of my friends, remarking longingly on his death, mentioned "The Whole Nine Yards" among Duncan's great works. Slate's featured Duncan quote, noting his breakout role in "The Green Mile," noted Duncan empathized with his character because "…We both had troubled times, we are both big, and by looking at us, you would be fearful of your life if you met us in a dark alley." There was clearly more depth to Mr. Duncan, since being a large man with a troubled past couldn't have been all that went into his Oscar-nominated performance.

And yet, Facebook greeted me yesterday morning with a note that eight of my friends (not counting Slate) posted about him. Mr. Duncan scored two of the top 10 U.S. trending topics on Twitter ("R.I.P. Michael Clarke Duncan" and "Green Mile"). For that brief window from Monday night into Tuesday morning, Mr. Duncan was a social-media phenomenon. And yet, while I enjoyed some of the actor's films and was surprised how young he was, the only public mourning I had in me was to create a some ecard saying, "The recently departed celebrity you never once mentioned is touched by your sudden social-media eulogizing."

Social media thrives on death. There are no guarantees that anyone else will be born from this moment forward, and it's a very safe bet that all of us will die. With the expansion of the celebrity to include anyone who has let a cable-TV show camera crew follow them around for a couple hours, that in turn creates even more content opportunities when all of these people ultimately die.

In its own twisted way, the michaelclarkeduncanization of social media creates a new opportunity for marketers. Brands need more content. They tend to be especially well served by reacting to timely stories. Few stories can be as timely as coverage of someone's death. It helps if brands have direct associations with celebrities, but often the best-performing posts brands publish tap into the social consciousness without thinking too hard of where the brand fits in. Doing this every day would get too morbid, but would it be so bad for a community manager with writer's block to check which celebrities have died that day?

The world has lost plenty of greats this year, including Neil Armstrong, Phyllis Diller, Tony Scott, and Marvin Hamlisch in August. Just remembering what they did can inspire, amuse, or trigger that comfort of nostalgia. People will keep using social media more to attach their own identities to those of people who have passed away, with little thought to how iconic the celebrity is . To connect with people, brands can't fear tapping into what makes us human. For brands, that means getting over any fear of death and embracing life's greatest certainty.

David Berkowitz is vice president of emerging media at 360i and spearheads the agency's Startup Outlook. .
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