Friends? It’s complicated.


Robin_Main_one

A friend of mine died a month or so ago. He was the brother of an old college mate. Not a particularly close friend, perhaps. I didn’t feel I was close enough to go to his funeral, for instance. But someone I was lucky enough to bump into in a bar earlier in the year. We chatted for a few minutes. It was good.

I bring this up because we were certainly close enough to be Facebook friends, and I think this is the first time a Facebook friend of mine has passed away. The reaction to his death among his own friends – many of whom obviously knew him much better than me – was a heartwarming mixture of grief (naturally), and celebration: dozens and dozens of pictures of Gary were posted, all of them liked and commented on freely. For a week or two “Gary has been tagged in a photo” was ever present on my timeline. It could have been a little creepy – but it wasn’t at all. It was good.

And so to Robin Williams. He died this week. You may have noticed. It was the lead story on the Today programme and countless other news outlets. My Facebook timeline was once again dominated by pictures of a dead man who had apparently touched people’s lives.

But this time round there were also one or two comments from those who objected to so much mawkish personal “grief” over someone none of us had actually met; who thought the world’s media (not to mention Apple and the President of the Free World) had got their priorities seriously misaligned; who viewed with distaste – even anger – what they interpreted as pretty lame attempts to use Williams’s death to educate us about depression.

I didn’t comment on either death. I didn’t have enough specific memories to write about Gary and, while I was certainly a fan, I didn’t have a personal tale to tell or a particular clip of Williams that I wanted to remind people about either. But I did feel uncomfortable with the idea that it was somehow less valid to express an opinion on a celebrity’s death than to pay tribute to someone I knew personally. How is it any different to passing comment on a film? A fantastic goal? A great meal?

People who share day-to-day updates like this are personalising their connection to these events just as much as those who comment on the latest celebrity death. But how often do they actually know the director, striker or chef involved? Of course your comments are going to be still more personal if you know the individual in the story, but does that mean we can’t have personal responses to the lives – and deaths – of the rest of the population? And if we’re going to share those responses anywhere, then surely it’s going to be on Facebook or Twitter?

Personally, I’m fine with people sharing their thoughts on Williams. I don’t think it contributes an awful lot to humanity, but if it means I stumble across a clip I haven’t seen before – or it prompts just one person to take depression more seriously – then I’m okay to sit through a few banal tributes. While we’re at it, I don’t really care about little Millie’s first faltering steps either – or her dad’s interminable early morning runs. And I’m especially dreading September’s barrage of pictures of Alfie’s first day at school (“Where did the years go?”).

But I put up with all the fluff because hidden within it are countless little surprises and opportunities to learn new stuff about my friends and their lives. Not everything they post is going to be deeply profound – some of it may be downright annoying – but it’s all part of what makes them who they are. And that includes the odd comment about a celeb they might care about. They’re going to have to post something particularly offensive for me to decide I no longer want to be friends with them.

What does all this have to do with branding or marketing? Not an awful lot, to be honest. I could bang on about the many different facets that make up a business’s brand personality; I could probably say something profound about the need to anticipate possible negative reactions when posting something well-meaning on social media; I could even, I suppose, come up with some thoughts about the dangers of reading comments on “the bottom half of the internet” at all.

But mainly I just wanted to say I was a bit sad about Robin Williams.

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