On Paul Walker and why Twitter still can't handle celebrity deaths

The problem with the 'tweet first, think second' mentality

Paul Walker in Fast and Furious 6 (Universal Studios)

The death of Fast and Furious actor Paul Walker is many things to many people: untimely, horrific, ironic, heartbreaking and—for one movie studio—potentially devastating, in an economical sense. But before anyone had a chance to truly parse their thoughts on the 40-year-old actor’s fatal car crash, the Internet—or, more specifically, Twitter—revealed that it still has no idea how to handle the passing of a celebrity.

Late Saturday night, news spread that Walker was a passenger in a one-car crash in Valencia, Calif., alongside driver Roger Rodas, an investor and friend of the actor’s. While officials are still investigating the accident, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department says that Rodas somehow lost control of his 2005 Porsche Carrera GT, slamming into a light pole before bursting into flames. Both men died in the crash, though Walker’s passing—in a speed-related incident, no less—was what pushed the news across news outlets, and countless Twitter accounts.

The subsequent online mourning cycle was almost cliched in its predictability. First, there was shock. Then condolences. Then the grotesque jokes (see third comment in for a truly awful example). And, finally, anger. Not anger at the loss of life itself, mind you, but anger over the fact that people are, well, paying too much attention to one man’s death. By Sunday afternoon, when reports started rolling in that Universal executives were already mulling their next move in Walker’s still-shooting Fast and Furious 7, it all became too much to digest, especially if you are, as I am, a fan of the actor and his ridiculously entertaining action franchise.

Yet what all the online turmoil revealed—in both its unadulterated sincerity and its quick crassness—is that Twitter can be a embarrassingly juvenile form of expression, one that has yet to fully process what it means to mourn. It’s almost as if Twitter is the Internet’s equivalent of a teenage brain. Like an amygdala that’s still in development, Twitter is teeming with irrational and impulsive behaviour, untempered by reason or caution. Users tweet out too-soon jokes without giving them much of any thought, and before long inconsequential Twitter wars cast their shadow over a very real loss.

This isn’t to say that Twitter can’t add to the conversation, and that it can’t be a meaningful tool to mourn. It’s just that users typically tweet first, and think second. When the subject is a political gaffe (say, a perpetually bumbling mayor) or a remarkable episode of television (say, Sunday night’s episode of The Walking Dead), then a rushed response is reasonable, even welcome. When the subject is a real-life tragedy—and a tragedy that doesn’t actually impact 99.9% of those tweeting about it, save Walker’s co-stars and family members—then it gets more complicated, and more unseemly.

There may be no one true way for fans to mourn Walker, but for those who really want to pay their respects, it’s likely best to watch one of his many great films rather than do anything involving a hashtag.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.