Cybermourning Frames and Collective Memory:
Robin Williams on Legacy.com
Campbell, Ph.D. (bios)
of South Carolina
Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
has a plethora of online memorials and obituary sites with guest books such as
Legacy.com, has become an open forum for public expression of grief, commonly
Our framing analysis of 1,114 condolences that were posted on Legacy.com
immediately following the announcement of the tragic suicide of comedian and
actor Robin Williams on August 11, 2014 reveals fans negotiating the healing process
through cybermourning. Three themes emerged from the cyber
condolences -- loss, appreciation, and a new beginning. Analysis of the themes
revealed three frames -- relationship, redemption, and release--used by cybermourners to make sense of and give meaning to
Williams’ death. The themes and frames in
this first research project on Legacy.com supports previous research findings
that cybermourning has become a new avenue to
facilitate the grieving and healing process. They also suggest a bottoms-up
approach to collective memory that incorporates memories of ordinary individuals,
which would be different than the top-down approach filtered through journalists
whose obituaries and news stories about a celebrity’s death have helped guide collective
Cybermourning, collective memory, framing, textual
analysis, Robin Williams, Legacy.com
Cybermourning Frames and Collective Memory:
As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus
will not be on Robin's death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter
he gave to millions." Susan Schneider, Robin Williams’ wife, in press
statement (Associated Press, n.d.).
Robin Williams on Legacy.com
Robin Williams was a world-famous comedian and an
Oscar-winning actor, loved for his improvisational comic style and the ability
to play serious roles (Puente, 2014). Following his death
on August 11, 2014, the airwaves and social media were saturated with coverage
and conversation about his illustrious career but also his drug addiction,
bouts with depression, and his suicide by hanging (Perlroth,
2014). It was also reported that he was suffering from the early stages of
Parkinson’s, an incurable degenerative disease that affects the nervous system
and muscular functions (Parkinson’s Disease Causes, 2014). The news media have long been the bearer
of sad news and a forum for conveying and constructing public grief (Kitch and Hume, 2008) when leaders and celebrities die
tragically. Who can forget the deaths and televised funerals of President John
F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom
were assassinated, or more recently the deaths of Princess Diana or pop star
Michael Jackson (Brown, Basil and Bocarnea, 2003;
Castro, 2010)? In the tradition of the role that news media
have played in “death,
dying, mourning and memorial culture” (Gibson and Altena,
2014, p. 15), cyberspace has become a new and significant forum for the expression
of grief (Brennan, 2008; Hanusch, 2010; Brubaker and
Hayes, 2011) -- a potential “virtual” Wailing Wall (Nager
and de Vries, 2004, p. 44) in “the digitalisation of death culture(s)” (Haverinen,
2014, p.5), whether the deceased is an ordinary person or a celebrity. Williams’ death immediately became a trending topic on social
media, including the online obituary site Legacy.com, where obituaries are
posted and condolences and tributes are expressed in guest books. Using
Legacy.com, we examined online condolences posted on the site to identify themes
and frames that cybermourners used to make sense of the
death by suicide of Williams, and what the themes and frames reveal about the
online public grieving process. Legacy has more than 24 million unique visitors each month and is
affiliated with more than 1,500 online and print newspapers worldwide (About Legacy.com, 2014). We
selected Legacy because: (1) we were unable to find previous scholarship that
focused on its apparently huge (at least by the numbers) but largely unexplored
role in the growing cultural practice of grieving via the online environment;
and (2) the site provided a rich medium for the study of cybermourning
from a group of cybermourners grieving in real time
over the death of Williams, a celebrity that they loved dearly.
Visit Williams’ celebrity page on Legacy.com where the researchers
obtained the online condolences: http://www.legacy.com/guestbooks/ladailynews/robin-williams-condolences/172070003. Nine months
after his death, people were still posting to the Legacy.com site permanently
dedicated to him.
We further address
whether the frames suggest how his suicide will influence society’s collective
memory of him, especially because of the outpouring of sympathy from ordinary people. Typically, collective memory has been
informed by news and views provided through mass media, largely by journalists (Zelizer, 1998; Edy, 1999). Thus,
this research pulls strands from four areas of research literature: grief and
mourning; celebrity and parasocial interaction;
framing; and collective memory.
Mourning is an extreme form of emotional
grief associated with the death of a loved one (Castle and
Phillips, 2003).The act of mourning serves to repair damage to the social
fabric caused by death (Hertz, 1960, as cited in Berta, n.d.). It is one of many types of rituals that
have been used by humans for more than 100,000 years (Hayden, 1987). The ritual
helps reunite the surviving members of the group and serves as a
transitional healing period (Gennep,1960). In times of national mourning, such as during 911, the media
play a crucial role by promoting “a sense of social collectivism that legitimizes
the existing social order and affirms common sacred values” (Pantti & Sumiala, 2009, p.
121). How different cultures mourn is as
varied as fingerprints.
Western culture, mourning is seen as a means of separation from the deceased so
that the living can recover and continue to live their lives. In Eastern
culture, mourning is viewed as means of maintaining connection, where imaginary
conversations with the deceased continue and altars are built in homes in
dedication to family ancestors (Stroebe, Gergen, Gergen and Stroebe, 1992). “Offering food at the altar of a loved one
would be classified as pathological by most Westerners, who would fear that the
bereaved was fixated in the grief process and had failed to relinquish the tie
to the deceased. However, in the Japanese case, such practices are fully
normal” (Stroebe, Gergen, Gergen and Stroebe, 1992, p.
in Western culture, due to geographical isolation, mourning as a cultural
practice took place in the private sphere of family,
friends, and local community. It allowed family members and friends to physically,
psychologically, and emotionally separate themselves from the deceased and
experience a period of healing so they could move forward with their lives (de Vries and Rutherford, 2004; Walter,
Hourizi, Moncur and Pitsillides, 2011). With the growth of mass media,
particularly newspapers, and the regular reporting of death, mourning
became more public in the sense that word of a death was spread more quickly
and broadly and more people therefore responded to it. Now, through interactive
website profiles of deceased individuals, memorials, and online groups and
therapy (Chapple and Ziebland,
2011), cybermourning is a key part of what has been
described as “the return of death to the public sphere” (Sumiala
and Hakola, 2013, p.3). Mourners are able to share
their grief and sorrow and be comforted online through counseling and by others
who grieve with them. Some web memorials -- like Legacy.com -- are generally accessible
24 hours a day without a password and provide space for a visitor to leave a
earliest reference to cybermourning was found in a
1996 news story about the Off-Broadway play “Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral.”
Computer users could log into the play, download pictures and chat with cast
members who played the role of mourners (Weston, 1996). Some funeral homes used
webcast software so that cybermourners from remote
locations could watch the service (Bambuck, 2007). Memorials
on the web, referred to as cybermemorials, such as a web page(s)
devoted to a deceased person, virtual cemeteries, and shrines to help grieving
individuals, began to appear in the 1990s (Roberts 2004; Roberts and Vidal
2000). The development of Web 2.0 in 2003 led to
an explosion in cybermourning (Walter, Hourizi, Moncur and Pitsillides, 2011) because the new interactive web, characterized
by YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and later Legacy.com, allows creators of
memorials and people who are grieving to engage with each other online often in
“real time” (Cormode and Krishnamurthy, 2008).
Cybermourning has become a significant part of the grieving process for
many, sometimes in addition to the traditional cultural practices and sometimes
in lieu of them (Lagerkvist, 2013). Cybermourning, such as visiting online
memorials, provides space for the public expression of
grief previously expressed privately or withheld altogether (Carroll and
Landry, 2010). Sharing grief is also facilitated by online memorials because
geographical distance no longer matters (Roberts, 2004; Carroll and Landry,
2010; Cristobal, 2007). A community of mourners develops in which they find
support among each other. Cybermourners, those who
create online memorials as well as those who visit the sites, seek to maintain
a continuing bond with the deceased rather than separating themselves; in
effect, they seek to keep the deceased alive (Klass, Silverman, and Nickman, 1996; Roberts, 2004; Mitchell, Stephenson, Cadell, and Macdonald, 2012).
One popular example is that cybermourners write to
the deceased as if they are still living (De Groot, 2012; Roberts, 2004; Brubaker and Hayes, 2011; Lagerkvist, 2013). All are efforts to make sense of the loss and come to
grips with it. Lagerkvist (2013) notes, “What is pivotal here is that the
relationship does not end: it is simply transformed” (p. 17). All in all, cybermourning may have therapeutic benefits by facilitating
the grieving process (Roberts and Vidal 2000; Roberts 2004), not bringing it to
an end but providing space for it to occur and be shared.
deceased is a beloved celebrity and when death is by the celebrity’s own hands, additional concerns enter the mourning process as a
mourner tries to make sense of death. Chief among those concerns is the
celebrity’s place in the life of the mourner, which can be distant, close, or
somewhere in between. Horton and Wohl (1956) would
have described fans of vastly popular celebrities like Williams as developing a
one-way parasocial relationship, in which fans feel an
intense sense of intimacy with the entertainer that is rarely reciprocated. It is as if the celebrity is a relative or personal
friend (Giles, 2002). Parasocial relationships can be
2004; Eyal and Cohen, 2006) and that intensity can increase when a fan’s favorite
celebrity dies (Bae, Brown and Kang, 2011; Radford and Bloch,
2012). Sanderson and Cheong (2010) refer to this
type of mourning as “parasocially grieving --that is,
mourning for the loss of a celebrity with whom they had parasocial
interaction” (p. 328). The Internet and social media have contributed to the
intensity of parasocial relationships by making
celebrities more available through a variety of media
that are available on the Internet 24 hours a day: TV
programs, movies, celebrity-focused television programming and magazines, celebrity
webpages and fan group websites, chat rooms, and easy access to virtually all
aspects of the celebrities’ lives (McCutcheon, Maltby,
Houran and Ashe, 2004; Radford and Bloch, 2012;
Sanderson and Cheong, 2010). Fans exhibited intense reaction in online message
board posts following the death of celebrity race car driver Dale Earnhardt,
Sr., but moved through the grief process much faster than they would in the
traditional mourning process (Radford and Bloch, 2012). In response to Michael
Jackson’s death, cybermourners were able to network
and build community around others who had also developed a one-way parasocial relationship with Jackson. It allowed their
grief to become a part of their everyday life (Sanderson and Cheong, 2010).
Collective Memory and Framing
creates sites of public and collective memory,
whether they are recorded memories, expressions of emotion and connection, or communities
of mourners. Because they are memories, they are representations of
the past that give meaning to the present and possibly the future. “(T)he past, present and the future are connected through
memory and commemoration and with the aid of media like ritual and text” such
as obituaries and virtual memorials (Faro, 2014, p.74). Obituaries are “more
abstract than mere facts” because they reflect values and are “a representation
of an ideal, with its
own distinct contribution to history” (Hume, 2000, p. 14). They are not only “useful
scaffolding” for studying collective memory (Fowler and Bielsa
(2007, p. 204), they are collective memory (Fowler,
2007; Hume 2000). By extension, so are
condolences in online guest books accompanying obituaries, which can represent
hundreds or thousands of individual memories that comprise or contribute to
collective memory. Previous research shows that visitors
who sign online guest books or visit online memorials can help “frame death
stories” (Hume and Bressers,
2009, p. 265). The individual posts, primarily by
ordinary individuals, have meaning and significance in the context of the broader
posts. Halbwachs (1980), a pioneer of
collective memory theory, contends that individual memory exists only in the
context of group memory, therefore meaning in individual memory is shaped by
the consciousness of the group.
Collective memory – be it factual or not – is how meaning is applied
to what is remembered so it is useful
to those doing the remembering. Mass media can play a big part in the
development of collective memory because in many circumstances it creates the
experience and narrative that are remembered, whether fulfilling the
journalistic function of informing or the entertainment function of diversion (Zelizer, 1998; Edy, 1999). Online obituaries, as
a public space for grieving and by virtue of being a part of the journalistic
function, contribute to development of collective memory; similarly, cybermemorials as a public space for grieving also
contribute to collective memory. More broadly, Lagerkvist(2013) notes that “traumatic and
transformative events that become milestones for the collective memory of a
national community, often involve loss of life”
(p.13). Although she was referring to a society’s collective memory, we contend
that collective memory of a celebrity, such as that of Williams, can be seen
from the same perspective, particularly when it involves the tragic
circumstances of his death. With the understanding that collective memory is
constructed (Hoskins (2009), not retrieved from a reservoir of memories, it
suggests a significant role for cybermemorials and
online condolences in the development of collective memory. "(W)hen fans mourn
dead celebrities, they are symbolically
negotiating authenticity, ownership, memory, and identity, all within the
institutional processes of mass mediation" (Jones and Jensen, 2005, p. xvi).
As sites of collective memory, cybermourning
is characterized by what Giaxoglou (2014) describes in her “socio-discursive” analysis of Facebook memorial posts as “framing devices”
that establish an “intertextual relationship with
prior texts” (p. 11, 14). As noted, collective memory is not formed in a vacuum
– and neither are frames. Collective memory is formed in the context of other
memories, group memory, and experience, which are structured by frames. Mass communications
framing theory explains that all media content, including cybermemorials,
is embedded with powerful frames (Carragee and Roefs,
2004). Essentially, frames are created through the process of
including, excluding, and presenting information in a way that guides how
people make sense of an experience.
Frames are considered powerful because they work at the
subconscious level (Carragee and Roefs,
2004), steering the thought processes in specific directions. Framing theory
recognizes that there can be different sources of frames, which determines who
has the power in the communication process. First, in some cases frames are
provided to the media by entities seeking to get their message out with a
certain meaning or spin. This is typically considered agenda-building, where a
source is guiding what the media might say (Berkowitz, 1992). Second, when the
media choose and disseminate information, the process is considered to be agenda-setting,
commonly referred to as the media telling the public what to think about. Agenda-setting
suggests that the media, rather than people or organizations the media rely on
for information, are determining what is important (McCombs
and Shaw, 1972). Third, when salience is given to certain frames that
suggest how to make sense of information or an experience, it is considered
framing. The media always impose frames on its content, whether intentional or
not, and individuals can impose
frames on media content they receive. Frames are always being negotiated, and
the ultimate frames may not be any specific frame put forth, but rather
negotiated frames (Campbell and Wiggins, 2014; Druckman, 2001; Tucker-McLaughlin and Campbell, 2013). These concepts are
important in cybermourning because they suggest online
condolences and memorials contain frames, the media might or might not choose
the same frames, and people (including loved ones) might impose their own frames
on memorials as well as media content. The power of frames is also in the
cultural connection they make with the audience Druckman, 2001); this further suggests a significant role for
ordinary individuals in the development of collective memory.
The literature suggests it would be
valuable to investigate the following research questions:
What themes are reflected in the cybermourners’ posts
on Legacy.com as they begin to publicly grieve Robin Williams’ death?
What frames are embedded in the cybermourners’ posts
on Legacy.com as they begin to publicly grieve Robin Williams’ death?
What roles did celebrity, parasocial interaction, and suicide play, if any, in the
development of the themes and frames, and implications for collective memory?
What do the themes and frames reveal about the online public grieving process?
What are the implications for collective memory?
What is Legacy.com?
Legacy.com, based in Evanston, Ill., was
founded in 1998 and calls itself “the leader in the online memorial and
obituary market,” serving more than 1,500 online and print newspapers
worldwide. Newspapers pay a fee for the site to be the host of their obituaries
and accompanying guest books. The site gets more than 24 million unique
visitors each month, “making it one of the 50 most visited websites in the
U.S.” (About Legacy.com, 2014, para. 2). Legacy.com
provides a number of options for the public to mourn virtually. The public has access to
obituaries and the option to post comments on their guest books, which stay up for a set number of days. For a fee, memorial
sites—including guest books--can be constructed allowing for a permanent record
of the deceased and his or her guest book (Celebrate a Legacy, n.d.).
For celebrities, special memorial sites are built, allowing for people to read
obituaries or to comment on their guest books. For people needing help with
coming to grips with the death of a loved one or a celebrity, Legacy -- as well as other cybermemorial sites -- has a number of cybermourning support groups on its
site to help mourners.
For our study, we
consider Legacy.com to be a memorial site. We compiled and analyzed the
condolences posted on Legacy.com during what might be considered the “golden
hour(s)" immediately following the announcement of Williams’ death, when
reaction was perhaps most sensitive. The golden hour is a concept from the field of emergency
medicine based on the idea that a person who receives medical treatment within
60 minutes of a traumatic accident is likely to survive (Lerner and Moscati, 2001). This research captures the first 900
posts from 7:30 p.m. to 11:59 p.m., the first four-and-one-half hours after his
death was announced. Additionally, the last 214 posts leading up to September
11, 2014, one month after his death, were also compiled and analyzed to see if the
nature of the condolences had changed. They had not, although the pace of
postings was slower. Therefore, a saturation point was reached as evidenced by
the redundant responses by the end of the first period and in the second period (Glaser and Strauss, 1967).As of Sept. 11, 2014, there were 3,950 total condolences
Using textual analysis, we identified the
themes and frames in the condolences. We treat themes and frames as distinct
concepts, with themes being a step toward determining frames. Themes are
general ideas while frames are specific ways of thinking, typically represented
in a pattern of thought (Campbell and Wiggins, 2014). To
identify themes, one author read the condolences
and answered the question, “What is
going on here?” (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Key words and phrases were selected by
the author to help answer the question. Similar answers were combined and identified
as the themes. To identify frames, the other author analyzed the themes for
patterns of thought to answer the question, “How do the condolences want you to think about the themes”? The salient
patterns in the themes were determined to be the frames. Each theme and frame
is an aggregate expressed across condolences rather than a theme and frame identified
in each individual condolence. This approach, adapted from Campbell and Wiggins
(2014), worked particularly well because of the two-to-three sentence brevity and
multiple thoughts of most condolences.
RQ1. What themes are reflected in the cybermourners’
posts on Legacy.com as they begin to publicly grieve Robin Williams’ death?
Williams’ death clearly moved, indeed shook, many of his fans emotionally and
they sought to publicly express their grief in his Legacy.com obituary guest
book. We have assembled a multimedia presentation of some of the 1,114 comments
posted on Legacy.com before midnight on the night Robin Williams died. They
represent the themes and frames that emerged from our study of cybermourners and provide insight into the tremendous grief
shared among his fans that evening over the social media platform. Visit this link
It is not clear how the cybermourners knew of the guest book. There might have been
a link to the full obituary and guest book
connected to the news story or online post they read. The general topic of the
condolences was remembrance, which is typically the topic of obituaries and
comments at wakes, memorials, and funerals. As one of the thousands of online
memorial sites that have changed the nature of grieving in society, Legacy.com
allowed people close and distant, ordinary and famous, private and public to remember
and grieve together. Their cybermourning may contribute
to the collective memory of Williams that began to take shape in themes and
frames in their condolences. Three
themes emerged during the analysis of the condolences: loss; appreciation; and
a new beginning. These themes, which answer RQ1, were consistent with grief
literature that addresses how people deal with the loss of a loved one (Klass,
Silverman, and Nickman, 1996; Kubler-Ross
and Kessler, 2005; Mitchell, Stephenson, Cadell, and Macdonald, 2012; Nager
and de Vries, 2004).
wanted the emotional impact of their sorrow and the
absence in their life to be felt and shared. “This saddens me beyond words,”
wrote a California woman. “You were a light to so many people.” Even though
Williams was a celebrity that most of the cybermourners
had never met, they nevertheless expressed deep emotional loss, the kind experienced
when a family member or friend dies. For
them, he was not the detached performer who entertains for a while and leaves;
he was family. “…(I)t was like losing a close
member of my family,” one cybermourner from New
Zealand wrote while one from Connecticut noted, “I feel as if I have lost one
of my parents all over again.” As is often the case in online memorials, many
wrote directly to him, as if talking to him. Said one from California, “Robin,
I along with so many millions of others feel like I have lost a close, personal
friend on August 11th.” A man from Texas, wrote, “Although you didn’t know me, I’ve
known you all of my life. I grew up with you. I laughed with you. I cried with
you.” Another California resident wrote poetically, “You were such a larger
part of my childhood. Another face I could look back on that felt like home.
You were a walking memory that always lit up the darkness. Thank you. Thank
felt a closeness and greater loss because they met him, if only once or
casually. The impression was lasting, giving them a connection to a celebrity
who also happened to be an ordinary person. Their sense of loss was magnified
because on the occasion of the chance meeting he made them feel like they
mattered. “A self-described alcoholic
from California posted this message directly addressing the comedian:
Robin. You came to our AA
meeting and didn’t leave until everybody in the room had a chance to meet you,
shake your hand, give you a hug, and thank you for being so generous and
forthcoming about your experience, strength and hope. I’m gutted at the moment.
California cybermourner also expressed her sense of
loss by recalling a personal experience with him and addressing him directly. She
I had the
sincere pleasure to share my 40th and 50th birthday celebrations in your
presence. I thank you for sharing the ice skating rink with my friends on my
birthday. For all the times you stopped and said hello, for cracking a joke or
two at a restaurant here in SF (San Francisco), never too busy to share your
time. For the hugs, for the smiles, for the laughs, and for all the intelligent
stories you so often shared. My heart goes out to you, to your family, and to
all of those whose lives you so positively and gently touched, including my
personal touch was spontaneous and other times it was planned; the effect was
the same, he made people feel valued and he entertained them in the process.
A former employee
at the San Francisco International Airport's executive terminal recalled his
…(O)ur crew loved it when Mr. Williams would arrive in his
aircraft. He was "hands down" the favorite celebrity we would
interact with being that he was so friendly and kind. Each year during the
winter holidays, he would send over honey baked hams for every single employee
to take home to his or her family. A wonderful artist and talent, and most importantly, a wonderful human being.
suggested the sense of loss was not just personal. It was much bigger; he
belonged to the world. One man posted this comment: “Such tragic news.
He truly was beloved. …We have lost one of the greatest comedic minds of our
lifetime.” Another wrote, “The world is richer for having you with us and yet
poorer for seeing you leave.” And yet another, from Michigan, said, “The world lost a very precious gift by the name of
loss -- and emptiness and sorrow that accompany it -- was a theme we
expected to emerge, we were surprised by the depth of grief.
The second theme, appreciation,
was twofold. Cybermourners expressed appreciation to
Williams (a) for laughter he inspired – sometimes when they were in difficult
circumstances, and (b) for bringing awareness to depression and suicide – some confessing they shared what they referred to as
his darker side. “Laugh,” or some variation of the word, was used more than 400
times, typically noting appreciation for Williams’ uncanny ability to make
people laugh. A simple “thank you” for “the laughs” or “the laughter” was a
common expression of appreciation. And not just laughter, but high-spirited
taught me how to laugh uncontrollably and to hug endlessly,” said one cybermourner from Louisiana. And reaffirming laughter:
“Robin, you filled so many lives with laughter, blessed, healing laughter,”
another said. And extracted laughter: “Robin, you always made me laugh. That is
not an easy thing to do.”
The feeling of having a closeness, or personal connection,
with Williams, also prevailed in expressions of appreciation for him, just as
it did in expressions of loss. “I have many joy soaked
memories of sitting next to my Dad while he was in tears from laughter watching
Robin just go for it,” recalled the man from California. Said another, from
Louisiana: “He was a
part of my childhood and most of my adulthood, and could always make me laugh
till I was in tears.” Another wrote, “You made me laugh so hard my stomach
hurt. But it was the best kind of hurt.” A San Francisco cybermourner
recalled a similar episode from 35 years earlier at a gas station:
was an early Sunday morning and my co-worker I were hungover.
You stepped out of your Ford Ranchero wearing a t-shirt that said "I'm the
real Robin Williams." We said "yeah, right.” You then went into a
routine that made my stomach hurt! Thank you and rest in peace.
His impact was both personal and widespread;
just as his death was considered a loss to the world, his talent for
entertaining was appreciated as a gift to the world. In what sounds like
overstatement, which tends to be found in condolences and tributes to the
deceased, some cybermourners took note of his global
significance in messages directly to him: “You changed the world and made it
better,” said one. It was a common expression of appreciation; the assertion
that his ability to make people laugh made the world better. “Thank you for
making the world laugh,” said a New Yorker, while another cybermourner
said “Thank you for your laughter and inspiration to this world.” Additionally,
one stated, “…mostly I will never forget all the laughs you brought to the
world.” Sharing a meaningful personal experience, one cybermourner
stated: “I saw Robin perform at Pier 39
as a kid. What was a wonderful memory for me was just another day for Robin -
making the world a better place one smile at a time.”
appreciated his humor for helping them escape from personal problems. They also
often addressed him directly. “Thank you for giving me laughter at the times
when I needed it the most,” one stated. Another
told him, “You were a light to so many people. You could make people laugh in
times of sorrow and brighten every one’s day.”
explained, “Robin, I hope you truly know just how much
you are loved and admired and the happiness and laughter you brought people.
You will forever be remembered for your warmth, your caring heart and the
ability to make people laugh and forget their problems, if just for a little
bit.” And some connected sentiments of laughter and a better world. A Rhode
Island woman noted, “Robin Williams gave
me the gift of laughter through his special talent. Laughter is one of the most
important gifts one can offer as it provides us with a temporary escape from
any hardships with which we may be faced, making this world a better place as
it lifts our spirits.”
appreciation might have been expressed for Williams putting a face on
depression and suicide, and his ability to generate laughter while struggling
with his own inability to laugh. A number of cybermourners
used the condolences to sadly acknowledge depression and suicide attempts in
their family, including their own attempts. Some also painfully acknowledged successful
suicides in their families. Addressing him, they
credited Williams with helping them cope through laughter. “You saw me through
childhood and adulthood and as I struggled with depression and anxiety, you
gave me hope,” said a cybermourner. Another said,
“Funny how God puts people in your life when you need them the most. I, too,
have suffered from depression since I was a teenager, and each time I was at my
lowest, God always managed to put you in front of me to make me laugh or to
think.” Often, though, the story was not about survival, it was about
understanding. A woman from Illinois wrote: “I also suffer from bi polar [sic] and have made 2 unsuccessful
suicide attempts. I know the pain Robin felt. He just didn’t want to deal with
the roller coaster ride.” A woman from California who also said she is bipolar wrote,
“I know the depths of sadness we go through in depressions’ grasp. I lost my
grandma and my mother has made several attempts at suicide.” Another woman from
California wrote about losing her daughter to an apparent suicide two years ago
and now, thanks to Williams, said she understands what her daughter sought.
Writing to Williams’ family, she said: “God Bless You...He (Robin Williams)
loved you all, but wanted peace. I lost my only child almost two years ago...
And finally I understood what she was feeling. She loved us, but, peace was
what she wanted.” Also writing to the family, a woman reflected on her son’s
mental illness as she wrote about what Williams meant to her.
heart goes out to his beloved family,” the woman wrote. Addressing Williams’
family at this difficult moment, she continued:
words can bring you comfort but know he brought so much laughter and joy to so
many lives. I, too, lost a young man to suicide, it's been 8 years and I still
miss him every day. I always wonder the what ifs. When
I found this young man all I could think was his demons were gone. My thoughts
and prayers are you, his family.
Another aspect of
appreciation was the hope that Williams’ public acknowledgement of his depression
and his suicide might help ease the stigma for people afraid to seek help. A
woman from California who also suffered from severe mental illness commented: “Thank
you for being so open about having severe depression because I have it, too.
Maybe a few people learned enough not to say ‘just snap out of it.’” A woman
from Wisconsin said to him: “I hope your death will bring depression to the
forefront. I, too, suffer from life-long, black-hole sadness.”
Additionally, he was
appreciated as a humanitarian. He
was variously characterized as “a kind, caring,” “genuine,” “extraordinary,”
“magnificent and brilliant” human being and a “great humanitarian.” Although
the characterizations were not always explained, they appeared to refer to his
charity work and support for different causes cited in some condolences. A California woman praised Williams for being among the first
comedians to deal with the sensitive issue of AIDS. She wrote: “I remember meeting Robin at an
AIDS fundraiser, early years, when AIDS wouldn’t cross most politicians’ lips.
Robin knew how to make that fundraiser successful and funny. I don’t remember
the jokes but I do remember how I felt at the end—healed through laughter.” A
man from California noted, “He did a lot for charity in this city too and was a
great neighbor. Kids would line up at their place every Halloween.” Writing to
the family, a cybermourner hoped, “he will never be forgotten as
a man who made so many people laugh as well as helping children around the
world have better lives with his charity and selflessness.” Also addressing his
family, another wrote: “Privately
he gave so much of himself to so many charity works. He made this world
better.” And writing directly to him, a cybermourner
wrote: “Thanks for all your support to the troops, to the all the charity work.
It was not done in vain.”
Theme 3: A New Beginning
Cybermourners frequently described Williams’ death
as representing a new start because he was free from the pain and suffering of
drug addiction and depression. His death was characterized as “a new journey,”
“peace from struggle,” “end of struggle with addiction/depression,” and “a
better afterlife,” among others. Cybermourners
writing directly to him were saddened that he
could not hear the laughter he gave the world – and use it to save him from
what many referred to as his “demons.” A woman from Connecticut wrote to him:
“I'm so sorry you couldn't "hear" your own laugh for laughter is the
best medicine. … Make them all laugh in heaven!” From North Carolina, a woman
apparently referring to her own struggle with depression, wrote: “I, too, know
the inner pain & demons that haunted you. I hope your Soul is at rest now
& you find the happiness that you so longed for....FLY FREE SWEET SPIRIT.”
Cybermourners exhorted him to share his humor in
his new home, often referring to heaven. Writing to Williams, the family, and
the public, they offered consolation that his legacy of laughter was
significant and Williams was finally at peace, perhaps even entertaining a new
audience including angels, like himself, and the hosts of heaven. “Heaven is
getting a great angel,” said a woman from Florida, while another said “Heaven will
be a happier place with Robin as one of Gods angels.” An Arizona cybermourner wrote, “Be at peace now and make the heavens
smile” while one in California similarly noted, “You are at peace now and now
Heaven gets to enjoy your talent.”
Numerous cybermourners indirectly
or directly made religious, particularly Christian, references. A man from California
wrote: “May the comfort and peace that rests in the arms of a merciful God be
yours. Jesus understood Robin and fought with him in his struggles. In His
mercy, I pray that Robin now rests in the eternal peace He has won for him.”
Another from California noted, “God bless. May the angels in Heaven enjoy your
bright smile and sense of humor like I did.” Upbeat condolences
tended to encourage Williams, as this California woman did: “May you keep
everyone laughing & happy in Heaven as you have made us here on Earth. God
Bless You.” Others encouraged: “Bring that laughter to Heaven with you” and
“Keep them laughing in heaven, Robin.”
What frames are embedded in the cybermourners’ posts
on Legacy.com as they begin to publicly grieve Robin Williams’ death?
We identified frames in the
condolences by addressing ways of thinking about loss, appreciation, and a new
beginning that were suggested in the online condolences. The ways of thinking,
or frames, indicate a subconscious as well as
conscious pattern of thought in the condolences that are a part of the grieving
process and that can be embedded in the
collective memory of Robin Williams that develops over the years. Frames of cybermourners may
go beyond the general and selective reporting of journalists to include the
whole of the community of mourners who were responding in this relatively new
world of cybermourning.
Three frames were
identified: relationship; redemption; and release. In each of the frames, the cybermourners expressed a level of emotion and bonding that
is generally found in significant personal relationships. Cybermourners
clearly developed a virtual parasocial relationship
with Williams. He was not just a comedian and an actor; he was a friend or
member of the family, which increased his significance and strengthened the
bond. As a frame, relationship separates Williams from other popular comedians
who may be popular and funny but not important beyond that. Being in a virtual parasocial relationship with Williams affects how one appreciates or understands him as
well as how his self-inflicted death is internalized.
The second frame was
redemption. Above all, cybermourners sought to redeem
Williams in light of the tragic circumstances of his death. His suicide and
drug addiction were explained as a consequence of his depression, which one cybermourner described as an “ugly black hole” and several
described as “demons” that got the best of him. In other words, the suicide was
not committed by the ordinary person in the Robin Williams some of them met, or
the humanitarian, actor and, most of all, zany comedian known and loved
worldwide. The suicide was committed by the demons – out of his control. For
other cybermourners, that Williams chose to take his
own life was noble because the act by such a high-profile celebrity could bring
much-needed attention to depression and suicide. The third frame was release,
which was present in all of the themes but perhaps most prevalent in the theme
of a new beginning. Because of the close relationship and the nature of the death,
it was challenging for cybermourners to accept his
death. All five stages of Kubler-Ross and Kessler’s
(2005) stages of grief are evident in the condolences taken as a whole: denial,
anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Even though the condolences were
posted within hours of his death, they reflected multiple stages of the grief
model, especially denial, depression, and acceptance. Such strong reaction may provide
further evidence of the strength of the parasocial
relationship. To accept his death, they chose the frame of releasing Williams from
his earthly suffering and demons to a world without those evils, where he could
continue to do what he did best – make them laugh. In doing so, cybermourners forever would remember him as the beloved
comedian. In a way, they were releasing him but also holding onto him at the
same time, having the comfort of knowing that he was still performing but not
Research Questions 3, 4 and 5 are addressed in the discussion.
What roles did celebrity, parasocial interaction, and suicide play, if any, in the
development of the themes and frames?
seemed to transcend the label of celebrity for so many cybermourners
and was seen as a regular guy who happened to be hilariously funny. He
comforted people, he inspired people, and he made them feel like he was their
friend. In the one-way relationship, he could talk to them through his humor. Many
were so comfortable with him, they called him by his first name. They and
others made comments that indicated a parasocial
relationship, and an emotional connection that might be as strong as a
real-life relationship. Because of the closeness they felt in the relationship,
they framed his death not in terms of the suicide but in terms of something out
of his control or as an act of nobility. We
acknowledge that negative comments about suicide might have been withheld from
the website. Editors at
comments that are insensitive, might reveal a dark family secret, berate the
dead or are otherwise unflattering (Urbina, 2006).
What do the themes and frames reveal about how the online public grieving process?
cybermourners’ public construction of grief took the
same path as that of traditional mourners – they highlighted the good and
interpreted what might have been seen as bad as being good. That is the
approach generally taken at memorial services and in recollections of the
deceased, especially immediately after their death. However, in moving the practice
of mourning to the Internet, cybermourners also renegotiated
it. Rather than putting the deceased out of their lives, they established an
ongoing relationship that amounted to keeping the person alive. They engaged
other mourners through memorial posts and by participating in chat rooms and
support groups. In effect, they maintained a relationship with the deceased and
What are the implications for collective memory?
The implications of
the frames for collective memory begin with the idea that collective memory can
develop through a bottoms-up approach in which ordinary people – in this case,
fans of a celebrity -- can have a say in its development. The frames also suggest a collective memory of Williams in the guest book
condolences. As Harju (2015) has noted, collective
memory is in memorials. Celebrities, with the help of the media, tend to be put
in one-dimensional boxes. They are remembered according to a narrative set out
by the media, whether it is based on one-line portrayals in a movie (Humphrey
Bogart), one act in a social movement (Rosa Parks), or a tragic life experience
(Challenger Space Shuttle astronauts). The Robin Williams’ condolences suggest
that the public can accept a much broader collective memory, and indeed, can
contribute to it. The condolences show that it is not the sensationalism that
the press might associate with a celebrity’s unfortunate circumstances or death
that should be central in the collective memory, but rather what should be
remembered is what made the person famous. For Williams, that was the
remembrances of the laughter he generated, and secondarily his humanitarianism
Cybermourning in open forums such as Legacy.com can provide a wealth of public contributions to collective memory, expanding the variety of
experiences that become the memory. As evidenced by this research, frames from
the experiences that shape the memory do not have to be limited to the
experiences of persons selected by journalists or other memory creators, but
they can also arise from public forums such as guest books on Legacy.com and
other online memorials. Edy (1999) and Fowler (2005) suggest
the media generally favor the collective memory of the affluent. However, it is
likely that most of the more than 1,100
condolences in this study are from ordinary people who posted their own
thoughts, not persons sought out by journalists who tend to use elite sources.
Thus, this study demonstrates that as Legacy.com provided newspapers a forum to
celebrate the life of Williams and memorialize him, it also provided a forum
for ordinary people to display virtual acts of remembrance through which their
collective memory of Williams was formed. It opens the door to a broader base
for collective memory.
significant in this research because they identify the dimensions of the
collective memory and where the power lies in the condolences to become
collective memory. The emotional connection to Williams, which is borne out in
the frames, essentially guides the shaping of the collective memory that
emerges from the condolences. The cybermourners are
collectively feeling, experiencing and speaking. The cybermourners
expressed that they have collectively experienced Williams in life, and now
they collectively experience the pain of losing him and choose to remember him
in certain ways.
This study just begins to scratch the surface on how new
technology has changed the dynamics when it comes to online collective memory
and acts of remembrance. Future research should
address whether cybermourners should be considered
citizen journalists (Robinson, 2009) and whether their “story” differs from
that reported by traditional journalists, which would possibly create a
different foundation for collective memory. Also, future “cybermourning” research should address
characteristics of cybermourners and connect that to
their messages. Another issue worth future study
are the parasocial relationships that surface among
some cybermourners. Likewise, it is worth studying
the many online condolences that Legacy.com filters out and does not allow the
public to see.
A weaknesses of
this study is that it is a convenience sample whose results cannot be
generalized to a larger population of condolences; however, the 214 condolences
at the end of the period indicates that results would not likely to change if
the full population were used. The study provides readers with a glimpse into
the thoughts of cybermourners who were using emerging
media in “real time” to reflect on the death of Williams as they possibly
contributed a collective memory of him.
About the Authors
Campbell, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass
Communications at the University of South
Carolina in Columbia, S.C. His research focus
includes media history and representation of African Americans in the media, using
the theoretical approaches of collective memory, framing and cultivation
Kim Smith, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of
Journalism and Mass Communication at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical
State University in Greensboro, N.C. His research interests include the impact
of emerging media on society, the portrayal of people of color in the media and
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