Searching for a new consensus on grief in the digital age

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on January 2, 2020.

Once upon a time, grief was something private. We took pains never to speak ill of the dead. When a person of some profile died, an obituary might appear in the morning paper. Early acts of public grieving were proper and decorous. One’s legacy was given time and space to settle, and the reckoning, if there was to be a reckoning, came later.

As with so much in life, social media is changing the way to handle death — how we mourn the loss of public figures, think, talk, and remember the recently passed. There are still obituaries, but a telling new sub-genre has emerged. You might call it the Honest Reckoning. It’s an immediate and public grappling with the good and the bad — acknowledgments of family, work, and achievement, but also addiction, cruelty, and suicide.

When it happens online, the messy work of grieving — the sausage-making of legacy — has been accelerated and democratized.

As with so much else, it now plays out as much on our Facebook timelines as in the newspapers. There have always been hired wailers, but lately, grief has became even more performative, imbued with this new power. The meaning of a public figure’s life and death is determined today by the collective and often corrective outpouring on social media, which chases a celebrity’s death like a shadow.

So it was that I followed with interest this past week’s first tragic and unexpected celebrity death — the death not of Kobe Bryant, but Mr. Peanut, the monocled, 104-year-old Planters Peanuts mascot who was killed off in a commercial set to air during the Super Bowl.

As with all the best Super Bowl ad campaigns, this one went viral. In the 30-second spot, Mr. Peanut is ejected from the Nutmobile and sacrifices himself to save his fellow passengers. The ad was the first of two parts. A second one was planned featuring Mr. Peanut’s funeral.

The multimillion dollar campaign was developed by VaynerMedia for Kraft Heinz, which owns Planters. The agency says it was inspired by the reaction online to the death of an Avengers superhero. “We started talking about how the internet reacts when someone dies,” explained the campaign’s creator. “When Iron Man died, we saw an incredible reaction on Twitter and on social media. It’s such a strange phenomenon.”

Strange, but also potent: the ad has already garnered more than 6.5 million views on YouTube, having been shared by devoted fans of Mr. Peanut, mourning the loss of the beloved legume. The genius of the campaign was that it went viral by encouraging the public to mockingly enact these now-familiar rituals of grief.
But the very dynamic that Kraft Heinz relied upon to amplify their campaign is ultimately what undermined it. After the real-life death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, Planters paused the advertisements. Social media users had begun complaining about the disorienting sensation of scrolling through posts that mixed real grief for Bryant with mock grief for Mr. Peanut.

In deciding to hit pause, Kraft Heinz is playing by the old rules, but by no means does everyone feel so obliged.

This week, in the aftermath of Bryant’s death, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was suspended for tweeting a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article detailing the sexual assault allegations made against the NBA great. She was reinstated two days later, which is precisely how long it took her newsroom bosses to realize what was already obvious to anyone living online: The adage against speaking ill of the dead has long since been discarded.

Or has it? Even as the Post’s own media critic condemned the suspension, tens of thousands of fans and mourners online hurled abuse and death threats at Sonmez.
Clearly, some people still felt strongly that it was disrespectful to raise the topic of sexual assault so soon; just as others felt it was disrespectful to carry on pretending to mourn Mr. Peanut while actually mourning Mr. Bryant.

If the morbid events of the past week have demonstrated one thing, it’s that — whether we are grieving or aggrieved, beat reporter or obituary writer, brand manager or Twitter troll — we remain far from a new consensus about death.