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Online Expressions of Grief for Whitney Houston

The next session at AoIR 2012 starts with Catherine Knight Steele, whose focus is on the online expression of grief following the death of Whitney Houston. Many of the messages being posted following her death seemed more like the support offered to family members than a public expression of fandom. The same was not true in the same way following the death of Michael Jackson, when many more critical responses were aired.

The grieving online following Houston's death can be understood as ritual – there was no documentation of news, but a reflection on who we are, how we express grief, how we mourn together: a sense of fellowship, of commonality. This experience may become transformatory for the people involved – and it should be noted that a substantial number of participants in this process were people of colour. How this plays out for different participants is also dependent on their own personal identities, of course.

Twitter can be understood as enabling a form of secondary orality. While social media platforms do erect boundaries around their specific sites, they also enable communities to come together and to engage in a shared, speech-like form of communication; this is especially important where social media are used as a backchannel to shared, live, televised texts. (Further, oral communication remains especially important in African-American communities, so Twitter may be especially important here.)

Grieving online is an important practice also because the opportunities for expressing grief offline may have declined – temporary online grief communities provide an opportunity to share support and thus validate the grief experience. This is a form of mutual psychosocial support.

Grieving in the Houston case took the form of exchanging hope, validating the grief experience, and offering psychosocial support (also to members of the Houston family); this was also mixed with expressions of fandom and celebrity attention, however, such as the reposting of fan materials (photos, videos, etc.).

Notable in this is the additive nature of discourse: users were 'singing' Houston songs together by each posting lyrics to one another; they participated in and anticipated the church service by posting 'amen' or speaking in tongues at appropriate moments. There was also community self-policing which militated against the discussion of Houston's drug problems or negative comments about the black church service. Houston herself was positioned as a black hero through this (a position she didn't have during her lifetime), while her ex-husband was accepted as a member of he community but criticised for his personal life.

This isn't simply a question of celebrity; the case involves a celebrity, but a pop culture event is here appropriated for private or communal purposes. This transferred the offline African-American community online, and made it highly visible when it is normally drowned out by the dominant community's tweets.