America's collective grief over the death of Steve Jobs is entering the next phase of what has become a somewhat common experience of fantasy community that I'm calling a Diana Moment, which goes something like this:
- Famous person dies.
- Cable news runs nonstop coverage, as if it's an evolving news event.
- Everyone has a "did you know?" conversation.
- The mediasphere fills with posts telling us what the person & event "meant."
- Mainstream weeklies run wrap-up cover stories (we're at this point now).
- The books appear (biographies, exposes).
- Everyone moves on to the next news event.
I left out the fact that some commentators try to fill some of the endless hours dedicated to keeping everyone aware of a Diana Moment with commentary about how everyone is aware of it. This "coming together" is offered up as proof of our common humanity and implicit goodness, and usually contrasted with the discord we evidence when it comes to other issues of our day.
This is an unfair comparison because it fails to note a few salient differences:
- The mediasphere makes us think we "know" these celebrities when we don't.
- There's no nuance to the events, in that they happen and either you care or you don't.
- Fantasy community requires no action beyond a click on a web story or a tsk-tsk to a friend.
- But no matter how personal or heartfelt your reaction might be, it really has nothing to do with you whatsoever, which makes expressing your feelings easier.
I'd suggest that Diana Moments have always been with us -- a nation mourned when monarchs died in the Middle Ages, and many Americans felt a personal sense of loss (or joy) when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated -- but that our technology and culture make them more intense, more fleeting and, thus, more common.
It's the ultimate reality show special.
The feelings are sincere. I have friends in the UK who still can't talk about Princess Diana's death without getting choked up. But nobody really "came together" over it as much as concurrently expressed their sorrow; there was no community as much as simultaneous consumption of media programming. Millions of people were individually saddened, while any observed community was simply shorthand for qualifying their behaviors. It happens all the time on TV. Lots of people came together to watch the last episodes of M.A.S.H. and Dallas. They came together with their media, though, and not each other.
Diana Moments are when we reveal how alone we are in this networked world of ours.
Imagine if we were able to shed tears together over the number of kids who starved to death in the world while I wrote this essay? What about coming together to make sure seniors had adequate food and healthcare? How about agreeing on action steps to create jobs in America that helped people we knew far better (and cared far more about) than the strangers we read about in People magazine?
For that matter, what a world it would be if we could treat one another less as bothersome strangers when we find ourselves waiting in line at Starbucks or sharing the same lane on a freeway.
Who would have thought that Coca-Cola could teach the world to sing after all...only now we come together for our Diana Moments, spend a few minutes mumbling lyrics and humming a tune we can barely follow, and then we're alone again.
(Image credit: There, but not really)