When Glee star Cory Monteith passed earlier this summer, news of his passing immediately started trending everywhere. There were over 10 million Google searches. There were tribute GIFs set up on Tumblr. There was a rush of celebrity tweets in addition to the countless Gleek tweets and tribute pages.
Young celebrity death has always managed to cause us to embrace our collective mourner, but now we no longer judge the
Cultural Currency of our celebrities by Q Scores and tabloid headlines. Now we’re rated by how well you trend on Twitter and how many fans your celebrity Facebook page amasses post-mortem.
There have been a spate of young TV stars who have died recently — That 70s Show’s Lisa Robin Kelly, The Bachelor’s Gia Allemand, and former Disney star Lee Thompson Young are the latest examples – and represent a sad side to what brings people to social media, television. These people were notable because of television, yet none were household names. There were over 2 million Google searches related to That 70s Show when Kelly died. It was the show that was the celebrity, and the real household name.
This Cultural Currency extends beyond their lives and tragic deaths. The lives of their characters are just as relevant. When it was announced that Cote de Pablo would be leaving NCIS, viewers took to social media to mourn that “loss” as well, even though her character’s ultimate fate has yet to be made public.
Likewise, how will Glee send off Monteith’s character? The sudden loss of a main character has a great deal of impact on the fictional world, and how the show reacts will likely reverberate on social media once the pivotal episode airs. Glee will trend again.
We’re more connected with our television stars than ever. We’re not just fans; we’re followers. Our tweets coexist with theirs. Sometimes we’ll even get a return tweet from a celebrity. So when there’s news of the latest star’s passing, it’s become natural to us that our tweets would show up among those of their costars.
The unfortunate truth is that these deaths were significant television events. It’s a dark reality that people come to social media to share their grief and to connect with others who feel the same shock. It’s television that’s the connective tissue. Television is an emotional relationship. It’s what drives our social conversations. It’s the basis of our Cultural Currency.
To these fans, the television experience goes beyond social. It’s friendship.