Celebrity deaths have special place in social media world

April 24, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Retweeting, status updates and other social media posts about the latest celebrity death are more than fans saying good-bye, says a Purdue University mass media effects expert.

"Fans lack the usual channels through which people would normally use to express their sorrow and grief," says Glenn Sparks, professor of communication. "We can't phone the celebrity's family to express our grief. We can't offer to bring meals to the house. We're generally not invited to attend the funeral services. In short, while we still care immensely and have deep emotional involvement with the person, we have none of the usual social outlets for our emotional expression. That's where social media may be playing an increasingly important role."

Sparks, a media scholar who studies how mass media affect relationships, says people form bonds with television and film characters and other celebrities that can feel very strong and very similar to the bonds we form with the people immediately around us. These relationships develop because of emotional involvement, similar likes and dislikes, and experiences through time.

"But of course, while these relationships seem to be conventional in those ways, they lack reciprocity and genuine dialogue," Sparks says. "By interacting with others who also had such a parasocial relationship with the deceased, we get to engage in a kind of mediated family that collectively gets to express its big group emotion to the loss.

"The parasocial relationship may have been principally a one-way kind of experience where the celebrity never really talked back. The sense of interaction with the Twitter community over the celebrity's death may tend to provide some sense that -- at long last -- there is a sort of mutual, two-way communication taking place around the celebrity. This can be a very powerful emotional experience for the one who is grieving the loss." 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Glenn Sparks, sparks@purdue.edu