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Fan Reactions to David Bowie's Death on Twitter

The next paper in this AoIR 2016 session is by Hilde van den Bulck, which shifts our focus to the mourning of David Bowie after his death on 10 January 2016. Bowie had had a stellar and constantly shifting career, of course, but had also managed to keep his private life comparatively private, which is why his death came quite unexpectedly. Not least because of this there was a massive reaction to news of his death on Facebook and Twitter.

One of the spaces that quickly emerged for such 'i-mourning' was the #bowie hashtag on Twitter. This became a space for the expression of the uneven relationship between fans and celebrities (where fans know everything about their idol, but celebrities know comparatively little about their fans), but was also simply an environment for the rapid distribution of news and the ad hoc accumulation of publics around this news, and perhaps also a space for a fan community to accumulate.

So, do the people participating in #bowie constitute a genuine community, and how do they engage with this topic? The present study focussed on the most popular tweets in the hashtag, and examined what users posted them and what sentiments they expressed.

Only a few of these tweets were expressions of parasocial relationships with David Bowie (retweeting tweets by Bowie's wife Iman and other celebrities who had tweeted about him before his death), but those few were notably all expressing positive sentiments about Bowie. Instead, the majority of tweets made more or less emotional comments about his personal legacy, his constantly changing stage persona, and the circumstances of his death from cancer. Many also engaged in (or with) fan creativity, with a handful of prominent verbal, visual, and audiovisual content getting widely retweeted. Little of this was original, however: it largely came from a small handful of widely retweeted accounts.

Was this a fan-based activity, then, or was attention mainly directed towards a small elite? Mainstream media and celebrities, and even a few government accounts, played a central role in #bowie; ordinary fans were far less central in the event. This contradicts the idea of the ad hoc public, and points more towards the role of media and celebrities as information sources and opinion leaders. Twitter was a space for the expression of fan emotions, but there was also a clear hierarchy in this community.