The headline flashed upon us on Super Bowl sunday: Philip Seymour Hoffman dead at 46. First, there was the disbelief- What? How? No way. Then, as more news outlets confirmed the reports, and the unreal started to sink in, there was only one place you could go to share the experience: Twitter.
The 140 character messaging service is both completely useless and utterly indispensable in our digital age. In moments of relative calm, Twitter is a total time suck, a whirling flotsam of messages that promotes utterly vacuous content in a tone of ironic-hipster awe (“This is the most amazing thing ever!”) or just blithely insults other users behind a veneer of anonymity. It is perfectly designed for each of these purposes, allowing us to murder workaday hours before the moment we can leave the office arrives. Upon returning home at night, having Twitter open on your phone is the perfect technique to ignore your loved ones: a constant flow of semi-random nothings is always available to distract you from the people you are growing ever distant from.
Yet in moments of tragedy or crisis, Twitter transforms itself into a vital public resource. For it is a space where you can feel instantly connected in the face of tragic and bewildering events. All of a sudden, all of its flaws as a social messaging service- its brevity, anonymity, and overuse- are transformed into strengths. For as you read message after message of shock and grief, you are reminded that there are other people out there whom, just like you, are trying to make sense of a set of tragic events now confronting them. All of a sudden, a temporary community is formed, if only in the virtual realm of online space.
And that is precisely what happened when we were faced with the impossible news of Hoffman’s death. As the 140 character messages of stunned grief rolled in, a community of instant-mourners was formed, and a kind of digital shiva was sat for the great actor. There were reminders of all the many roles we loved him in; there was the aching sense, expressed again and again, that his best was yet to come, that we had still not even seen the greatest performance Hoffman could have given; and there was the expression of utter sadness over the personal tragedy this represented, particularly his leaving behind three beautiful young children.
Of course, there was the inevitable lewd musings on the circumstances of his death. Why would someone at the absolute pinnacle of his field, with money, fame, and so much professional opportunity, abuse such a hideous drug as heroin? Why did someone who quite literally had it all- a Greenwich Village address, three beautiful kids, professional veneration- risk it all in a drug-induced bender?
In the hours that followed his death, all of these questions and remonstrations lit up our computer screens. In the days to come, longer-form essays and obituaries were published. Other than voyeuristic depictions of Hoffman’s last, addiction fueled days, these articles told us precious little that we did not already know. Indeed, they simply served as long-form elaborations of the initial sentiments of grief and regret that had already been expressed via Twitter. Despite the speed at which these articles were written and published- a mere day or two after his death- they felt late, tired, retreads of what had already been spoken in a more urgent way. Podcast tributes rolled in, memorials were held in Manhattan, speculation about a tribute at the Academy Awards gained steam.
But the story had no where to go. Hoffman was dead, a great and beautiful actor was lost, and three children would now grow up without their father. And that was it. Everything that could or needed to be said by us had already been done so, in a flurry of 140 characters.
This is how we mourn public figures now. Amidst an instantaneous flow of digital information, a constant churning of tweets and blog posts that animate a story and then hollow it out with stunning alacrity.
And then we move on. The tweets stop, the blog-posts slow down, the collective hit-machines that are major websites shift gears to other buzz-generating stories. Three weeks later, Hoffman’s death is a tragic specter, but one that has no more drawing power, drowned out in a flurry of news regarding the Sochi Olympics, revolution in Ukraine, bombings in Syria, and Jimmy Fallon taking over the Tonight Show. The momentary collective created online in reaction to Hoffman’s death fractured as quickly as it emerged.
Television news always had an air of unreality about it, a sense that the images of far off wars, famine, and poverty were ephemeral, impossibly make-believe. It didn’t help that these images were presented to us by dolled up talking heads, anchors whose unwavering polish amounted to something only pseudo-human. What the internet has done is only heightened, to an unprecedented degree, that sense of the unreal and the uncanny in the media: images, videos, podcasts, blog postings, news reports, twitter feeds all cascade restlessly together, rendering events both immediate and yet strangely empty: genocide can be passed over with the click of a mouse; recession and protests in the streets can be clicked off of in favor of heated debate about roster moves regarding our favorite sports teams; any sexual act we want to see can be glimpsed in two or three clicks of our hand, rendering them devoid of any truly erotic or mysterious power they once possessed.
How can we understand what this vast digital behemoth really is? What is it doing to us? I don’t know. Certainly, given the rise of austerity-governments throughout the West and the as of yet unfinished task of building a transnational politics of social justice, we need the internet for its mobilizing capacities. One can certainly not take a reactionary position on it.
And yet the miasmic-cloud that makes everything instantly consumable also makes everything instantly obsolete. Do we have the power to be shocked by any news story, any set of images or depiction of human suffering, given the flimsy ease with which we can click away from it? What image would need to surface on our laptops for us to be moved enough to step away from the machine itself, go out into the streets, and start building a radically different world?
The digital-machine gobbled Philip Seymour Hoffman up as quickly as it could, expressing its paroxysm of sadness, speculation, and regret before moving on to the next mildly-interesting story. We grieved, we congregated online, and then we dispersed, back to our sports stories and movie reviews, our individualized blogs and youtube accounts.
The trick with the internet, I think, is to find a way to ensure that the momentary collective that emerges in the face of something like Hoffman’s death becomes a sustained one. We have to combat against the brevity of the internet, its relentless churning, its whittling down of complex human tragedies into bare and digestible details.
This is not just a question of publishing longer form pieces, of demanding solid investigative and analytical work from our blogs (although of course these are part of the solution). It is, rather, a question of how to build a deeply felt and socially influential community amongst online users.
For the internet is instant and flimsy, an explosion of digital sound and fury that largely signifies nothing. One needs to fight against its tendency for quick fracture and to build, message by message, post by post, a lasting solidarity amongst us: not one based on national affiliation or exclusionary ethnicity, but of like-minded people committed to unwavering service to certain political ideals.
A community which, despite its formation in and around the computer screen, will actually step away from the machine, go out into the streets, and work collectively for a better world. A community where the space between digital activity and social mobilization has been rendered indecipherable.
The irony is that this article, like so many written in the wake of Hoffman’s death, will dissolve into the digital ether once released, consumed by our momentary readers and then fade into collective oblivion. It will be defined by the same sense of digital fracture that befalls all writing on the internet: present one day, gone the next, and ultimately without much social power at all.
Yet we need to fight against this sense of impotence. For the internet has been and will continue to be the breeding ground for the great political movements of the 21st century.
It simply needs to be harnessed in the right way.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.