Only two weeks have passed since a helicopter crash took the lives of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others. In that time, the response has been nothing if not typical.
Every social media account had something to say, a picture to post or a breaking story to retweet. This might be appropriate if everyone were able to mourn patiently and respectfully for the lives lost in such a tragedy, including that of a complex and unimaginably famous human being such as Bryant, but grief does not fit into Twitter’s 280 character limit.
Even among NBA players, Bryant enjoyed a level of notoriety only familiar to fellow household names like Michael Jordan and Lebron James. Bryant was a childhood hero to many, but his career did not proceed without controversy. In 2003, a 19-year-old desk clerk accused the athlete of raping her during his stay at the hotel she worked at. Bryant, who was 24 years old and married, admitted to sleeping with the woman but insisted that the sex was consensual. The charges against Bryant were dropped when the woman refused to testify and eventually a settlement was made with Bryant outside of court.
Now, 17 years after the fact, the allegations against Bryant have found new life in the commentaries of those who hesitate to wholeheartedly celebrate his life or mourn his death. This reluctance has been voiced by a number of different sources in a number of different ways: a high school principal in Washington was placed on administrative leave for describing Bryant’s death as “karma;” “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King faced backlash for asking WNBA star Lisa Leslie what she thought of the allegations in a small part of a much longer interview; and Abigail Disney (yes, that Disney) tweeted last Wednesday: “The man was a rapist, deal with it.”
All of these individuals have faced intense criticism on social media for bringing up events that many perceive to be resolved to shamelessly attack the NBA legend. With that said, these reactions pale in comparison to posts made by comedian Ari Shaffir who tweeted upon hearing of the crash that “Kobe Bryant died 23 years too late today.” He then congratulated the pilot of the helicopter on not refueling the engine and finished with, “I hate the Lakers. What a great day!” Shaffir’s tweet, which resulted in him receiving death threats and being dropped from his talent agency, represents a significant portion of the responses to Bryant’s death. Some people expressed sadness, others got mad and another group decided to troll everyone else.
The power and illusion of social media is that it is far removed from reality. When the dominant means of communicating emotion is emojis, it cheapens any real attempt at conveying the sort of devastation that the death of a loved one can bring about. Some take advantage of this emotional separation to address emotional situations with humor that would generally be considered tasteless in the form of memes or transgressive posts like Shaffir’s. Others may seek out silver linings by employing expressions about being at peace or angels in heaven, which, as The Atlantic writer Claire Wilmot asserts, can come off as “isolating and offensive” for those who were legitimately close to the individual.
Social media is certainly not all bad when it comes to times of difficulty or grief and many expressions can be effective in displaying sympathy and solidarity with those affected by the death of a loved one. On the other hand, such public reactions can seem at once opportunistic, performative and ultimately disingenuous attempts at displaying emotion that isn’t felt. Kobe Bryant was immensely successful, influential and active in supporting important causes later in his too-short life. There is so much in the way that he lived his life that is worth admiring but to deify him would be doing a disservice to those that truly knew him as a human being, flaws and all. No one tweet will immortalize Bryant’s legacy or the grief that resulted from its early ending; it’s better to let loss be felt than cheapen it with an emoji.