Monday, August 11th I was driving home from my friend Helene’s new apartment. We’d spent the last three hours unpacking boxes, moving furniture, and hanging clothes in her closet. I switched my car radio to 88.5 FM (our local NPR station) and listened to the news briefs. I was pulling onto my side street when I heard about Robin Williams. I parked and sat in my car a little stunned, not even bothering to unbuckle my seatbelt as a clip from Good Will Hunting played from the other side of the speaker.
I’ve never really been one for celebrity gossip, but something about this particular death really got to me. I learned that Williams had been living in Marin County. In Tiburon, just miles from a literary agency I interviewed with back in April. Something about the proximity made the whole thing feel closer. Back inside my apartment I flipped open my laptop and logged into Facebook. I looked up another scene from Good Will Hunting, one that had stuck with me even years since I’d last seen it. I left a post on my wall and navigated to my homepage. As I did something strange began to happen. I watched my newsfeed implode as the news of Williams’s death went viral. Within seconds of finishing my post I saw posts from several of my friends. And then several more. Almost immediately my post was “liked” and shared by one of my cousins. Usually at this point I’d log off and get on with my work, but Monday was different. Monday I was involved. I read through and “liked” a handful of related posts as they cropped up in my newsfeed, posts that had all been created within this tiny ten-minute window between the release of the news and the world’s reaction to it.
I know this has happened before. That it happens all the time, and with events that are both more and less significant than the death of beloved actor. Hashtags and search engines and data collectors and analysts of all kinds monitor what we’re saying and sharing, what we post, what we view, what we “like.” I’ve seen the evidence of it often. But I’ve never felt such a part of it, so immediately connected and caught up in the deluge. I’m usually a few steps behind when it comes to finding new content. It is “old news” by the time it reaches my line of sight.
This experience was different. I felt immediately there. A part of the thinking and acting and processing and responding as it was taking place. I felt that I and the people I knew and didn’t know and didn’t even want to know were all somehow tied together by this sad piece of news, an event made all the more difficult by the fact that the very work of Williams’s life—the creation of films and experiences that celebrate the simultaneous fierceness and fragility of the human soul and the universalness of living the human life—is something that was intended to tie us all together. And all of this made me wonder at the instant and insurmountable power of social media.
I’m a writer, taking part in an MFA program where we read books with pages and use pens to mark up manuscripts. Not because it’s better, but more often because it’s familiar. Some of my instructors are pretty “old school” when it comes to technology and I don’t have a problem with that. But for as often as I’ve heard people mourn the loss of print media and bemoan the distancing that comes with online interaction, I think we really need to balance that with a conversation about progress. About what these tools are making possible as well as what they are replacing.
Like a good many other tools in the world, social media can get out of hand. It can be dangerous or hurtful. It can be addicting and consuming. It can protect us from the realness and authenticity of face-to-face interactions or be used as a substitute for the human connection that we crave. But it can also unite us, giving us access to valuable information, life-saving knowledge, or even something as simple as a heart-touching video or a really good laugh.
Monday night I had a friend come over and we rented a copy of Dead Poet’s Society from Amazon. I hadn’t seen it since my freshman year of college, and at that time I had believed that it was a movie about poetry. As an English major I’d swooned at the quotations from Whitman and references to Shakespeare. I imagined all that I would learn in the four years ahead of me, of how I would be somehow like this group of boys—different, intelligent, artistic. On a second viewing though (and some films really do deserve a second viewing), the movie is not about poetry at all. It is about connection. Passion. About all of the things that make life worth living and what it means to kindle the spark that has been placed in the pit of your soul. As I watched Robin Williams bring life and dimension to the character of John Keating I thought of the countless others across the nation, across the world even, who were similarly curled up on their couches or snuggled in their beds watching Williams remind them of their shared humanity. I thought this must be the real purpose of human invention—to create products and processes and pieces and perceptions that connect us to one another and remind us of how close we really are.