With news of the death Tuesday of “Star Wars” actress Carrie Fisher, there truly was a disturbance in the force — to borrow a key phrase from that film. By which we mean there was a global outpouring of affection and mourning via social media from Fisher’s many fans.
Did you notice? Thousands of people were saying goodbye on Facebook and Twitter, almost in unison.
In “Star Wars,” Fisher was the bravely determined Princess Leia. As a writer, she was fearlessly honest about her struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder. Her death at 60 is sad, but there was solace and inspiration in the online reflections and appreciations by people she touched:
“Carrie Fisher taught every little girl that they don’t have to be a damsel in distress. She redefined the idea of a princess,” one woman wrote on Twitter a few minutes after Fisher’s death was announced.
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“Carrie Fisher not just a great actor and writer — but abrasively honest re mental illness & addiction – topics still shameful esp for women,” another wrote.
Carrie Fisher taught every little girl that they don’t have to be a damsel in distress. She redefined the idea of a princess.
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A portion of the digital reaction focused on the timing: Another unique talent has died? Fie on you, 2016. George Michael, the soulful British singer, departed on Christmas Day. The year also took Muhammad Ali, iconic musicians David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen, entertainers Gene Wilder, Garry Shandling and Garry Marshall, writer Harper Lee and many more famous and infamous figures.
Did 2016 have something nefarious up its sleeve? Of course not. Death is not just inevitable, it’s unpredictable. What did seem more noticeable this year, especially compared to the era before social media, is the impact of notable deaths on people all over the country, and the world, because they could share their thoughts and grief instantaneously via smartphone, tablet or computer. Where once you might have read a newspaper obituary, learned of a colleague’s favorite songwriter or performer at the water cooler or missed out completely, this year you could see and read the tributes by friends and others unfurl in real-time on Facebook or other sites.
Call it the collective public eulogy.
If you never saw “Star Wars” or read Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel “Postcards from the Edge,” she probably meant little to you. But a few minutes scrolling the web on Tuesday brought you smack-dab into a deeply moving, virtual memorial service. Fisher, it turns out, wasn’t just an iconic actress and the daughter of Hollywood legends Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, she was a role model for would-be princesses everywhere, an imperfect soul and hilarious observer of the human condition. There was a lot to love about Carrie Fisher, and that’s what you saw in the Twitterverse.
This phenomenon played out frequently in 2016 the wake of each breaking news headline about a celebrity death. Fans shared their lists of favorite Bowie songs and passages from Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” They mourned the loss of actor Alan Rickman and his Professor Snape character from the Harry Potter series. They posted Leonard Cohen concert footage and George Michael videos in tribute. And they thanked the artists for their gifts.
Besides acting as a catharsis, the collective eulogy serves a valuable secondary purpose. When the public inundates social media with praise and goodbyes for an influential public figure, it provides a giant hint that this person was important. It’s a belated introduction to a new audience. If your Facebook feed lights up over a death, that’s an unexpected opportunity to explore an author or musician or historical figure you didn’t know. Consider taking advantage of the invitation. Bowie truly was a visionary. Fisher was an inspiration. You can trust the wisdom of the crowd.