Thoughts and ramblings on tech, media, culture, and food. Plus some other stuff, I'm sure.

Why we mourn celebrities' deaths

"Steve Jobs is dead" read the headline on many a news blog last evening. For more than three hours my Twitter stream was filled with quotes, condolences, epiphanies of the frailty of life, and tributes to one the greatest inventors, innovators, and marketers ever to live in this earth. A connected globe of humans mourned this man's passing in the same instant, connected to each other, united with each other, by way of their media extensions. Millions of people who, even six years ago, would mostly be considered strangers in the others' minds were instantly family.

The transient nature of these connections is interesting–and probably a deeper topic for another post–and it led to a specific group of people (call them trolls or otherwise) who just could not understand the outpouring of tribute for a man they had never met. "Why," they asked, "would we mourn someone who made mistakes? Who behaved, sometimes, like a terrible person? Whose life was focused on business?"

Depths of Celebrity

There is an interesting difference in how much we might mourn a person who has made a difference and how much we might mourn a person who is simply famous. Steve Jobs, for example, is a celebrity for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that he set himself up as the face of the most iconic companies in history. Whenever a "revolutionary" product was revealed by Apple, Inc., Jobs' face was tied to the event. He was the spokesperson, the personality, the embodiment of Apple and its products.

But see, Jobs' celebrity extended beyond the superficial status of actors or athletes. Because he acted to change the world through the things he designed, the business he carried out, and the dreams he brought to fruition, this man had a profound effect on our culture.

We don't mourn people we've never met for no reason. For many of us, the news of Steve Jobs' death, like the news of Princess Diana's in the 90s, struck an emotional chord in our minds. Whether we realize it or not, this world and daily life was profoundly modified. As I type this, I am staring into, first, my MacBook Pro, and second, my work iMac. I am typing on an Apple keyboard, using an Apple trackpad, etc. All of this has been written in the last fifteen hours or so by others. But it's true.

Apple has taken Marshall McLuhan's idea of media as extensions of man and proved it again and again. When one's entire life organization and process has been altered by a technology or an idea, and that alteration is amplified by millions of people and entire media industries, you can bet we're going to feel the weight of a tragedy directly connected with it.

Jobs set himself up as a celebrity, similar to how McLuhan created his own celebrity, and he did it on purpose. A man meticulous in strategy, planning, and execution, there can be no doubt that Jobs was controlling his own message. If he was the medium, his message was that of creativity, innovation, excitement, anticipation, productivity... happiness. All extremely visceral and personal attributes. Ones to be taken to heart. Ones that affect humans deeply.

Globalized Media

The most poignant aspect, the biggest difference in this experience than from those in the past, is the connected nature of our converged world. We, globally, let out a collective gasp. And that's only slightly hyperbolic. I'm sure many of us, upon reading that first tweet or seeing that first news headline, gasped at the news. When NBC broke into the show we were watching to announce Jobs' death, I certainly gasped out loud. My first thought was, "How sad" followed by, "What does this mean for media?" While I wasn't shocked at the news (we all knew it was coming soon when he stepped down from his CEO position at Apple in August), I was still saddened. I think that's the case for most of us.

That emotion was felt by millions of people globally at approximately the same time. We're so connected, all the time, that we can collectively share in a tragedy such as this. The speed in which this event was conveyed to everyone, everywhere is still astounding. The Internet, again, broke the news before traditional media outlets. We were talking about it over twitter at least 23 minutes before NBC broke the story over broadcast.

In the same way that we can share in joys together, even across oceans and boarders, we can collectively join together and pay tribute, express sadness and gratitude, and comfort each other in times of need. All because globalized media and the technologies that enable them, have merged our lives, and shortened the distances between us. Perhaps this is a heightening of our humanity? Not a global consciousness, exactly, but a closer connection to humanity.

What does it all mean?

It's ridiculous to question the reason why we mourn the passing of celebrities. Some, we mourn for a short time because they have had little impact on our lives. I think of Kurt Cobain and how short-lived, but intense the mourning over his death was. And he did it to himself. Then I think of someone like Steve Jobs who, despite his faults as a human, created things that radically changed the way all technology users view the world. His impact was strong, and we'll be remembering and mourning the loss of this visionary for months to come.

Our connectedness to each other ensures that this remembrance will linger into the immediate future. We'll continue to share stories and thoughts and opinions on his life and work for years.

I don't think there is anything wrong with mourning the loss of someone you respect, and have respected. It doesn't matter if you've known them personally in the traditional sense or not, death is hard and affecting. It's healthy to be aware of our own limited time and to reflect on the time others have had on earth. And to give tribute to their work.