On Robin Williams and fumbling our way through Internet grief

I found out Robin Williams died like everyone else did: on Twitter, a stray message breaking the news to me. “Robin Williams gone. TAKE DEPRESSION SERIOUSLY,” writer Stephen Rodrick wrote. It was 3:50 p.m., a Portland afternoon otherwise in its usual order of summer heat and downtown traffic.

My instinct, not for the first time, was disbelief: I searched Google News, then went back to Twitter. Yes, it was there. Robin Williams, dead at 63 in an apparent suicide. He’d been to rehab a year ago and been suffering lately from depression, the early word went.

By 3:55 p.m., my timeline was 100% Williams. Lists of favorite movies. Retweets of famous people’s parting words. Suicide hotlines and posts about mental health. The rush of galleries, articles, obituaries, tributes. And then, of course, the backlash, judgment calls on how others were reacting to a man’s death by promoting a presumed agenda, attacks on a news network choosing sensationalism over a family’s wishes. There was no time even to think, barely enough to feel.

Humans have been learning how to deal with grief for thousands of years. We are not done yet. For practicing Jews, my religion, there are strict structures for what to wear, what to do, and for how long: this is intended as a comfort, to allow mourners to channel their energy into pain and release and let the mechanics of daily life take care of themselves.

But there is no structure online, where we are together but not, where we know each other until we don’t. Where acting and being can be at odds.

By 4, I was in line at a Portland theater, about to see the band Broken Bells get interviewed for a radio program. I was there as a journalist, to observe and report and probably tweet. But should I? What would be right? Or kind? Or respectful?

Twitter’s closest analogue, if it can be shrunken and distilled to one, is high school: its conversations are often superficial, snappy and status-minded, a hallway of monologues happening at once. Communities form, and grimace with the same infighting of senior year cliques; each week, a topic or two finds its way to Music Journalist Twitter and the rest of the world ceases to exist. But national events draw everyone together in startling ways, from the Oscars to presidential debates to celebrity deaths. In some ways, Twitter has renewed the power of television: when everyone you know is watching together, the power to connect over it is unprecedented.

We have approached this, like so many things, in fearful, protective ways, shielding ourselves in snark and disdain even as we watch the same Grammy Awards as the millions who put it on because it’s entertaining. So is joking about it, sure, but the connection — the humanizing power of the shared moment — is lost if Twitter is just a performance, millions of little personal brands acting in millions of dark off-Broadway plays to occasional diplomatic applause.

I scrolled through my feed on Monday and didn’t know how to react. I felt the need to say something–to recognize the moment, but also be part of it, the urge I imagine most of us felt. I named some Williams films that meant something to me. “So sad,” I finished, a stupid, obvious thing, but an honest one and one that would fit in 140 characters. A convenient truth.

I am grappling with this. I think we all are. The Twitter Rabbis have rendered no Talmud for us yet. The Academy posted an image from “Aladdin,” a film Williams served as a wonderful voice actor for, with the caption, “Genie, you’re free.” I saw people deeply touched by this. And the metaphor – a man seemingly trapped by his demons, given a release from them – what greater comfort could there be? But I found it viscerally sickening, diminishing. A human being died in agony, not in the warm glow of a cartoon’s happy ending. I nearly tweeted back, but didn’t. There was no need to add more hurt.

Twitter, and whatever will follow it, gives us the capacity to share like never before, and what we have in common is culture: music, art, film, TV, fashion. At our best, we can learn from each other on deeper, more painful topics, as the #iftheygunnedmedown hashtag showed earlier on Monday. More safely, though, shared culture means Robin Williams is the closest thing to a mutual family member that many of us may have. The outpouring I witnessed, that we all witnessed, is meaningful and powerful: it captures us at our most vulnerable and honest and human. As a kind of family.

But it also captures us at our worst, in the ways we let our own voices and needs push aside others. In the way honesty becomes performative; when sharing becomes sensationalism; helping when there can be no help.

We all respond in our own ways from our own worlds, which makes it easy to make grey areas sharpen into contrast. There was so much grief, so much public pain on Monday: Robin Williams was not our dad or our brother or our cousin. He was a part of our lives, yes, but how much and how big? In the back of my mind, a voice spoke: are people really this sad?

It’s an ugly question. I choose not to answer it. But we still have the old ways of grieving, and they’re often done in digital silence. It’s not just deaths: take the dissonance between the hum of discussion over Beyonce and Jay Z’s rumored marriage woes and the tip-toed status change that accompanied your last Facebook friend’s divorce. I went to my high school reunion last year, and nearly certain I’d seen one woman’s status update to engagement in previous months, I asked if she’d gotten married. “Oh no,” she said, pushing the question aside. She was just having fun, enjoying life. Either my memory was bad or her embarrassment was worse.

We are all learning how to live online. What to reveal and when; how to really listen. So much nuance and expression doesn’t come across: even simple conversation is difficult and often ends in anger or foolishness. We have to recognize that we are building fresh structures right now, new means for understanding each other and being together. Not everyone will want to. But we’re all here. We have to try.