Digital Stories & Social Contagions

A starry sky. A loving embrace. With news of Robin Williams' death, the official Twitter account for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent out an iconic image to say goodbye to the celebrated comedian and actor.


This single tweet is so many things. Beautiful, heartfelt, nostalgic and poignant. With three words and a still frame from a film more than two decades old, the Academy published much more than a digital goodbye. It is a viral love letter, wrought with emotion and delivered with speed to over 800,000 followers. As pointed out by Caitlin Dewey in this article for The Washington Post, tens of millions more re-shared the tweet, amplifying its reach on a global scale.

And therein lies the problem. With its calming imagery and unmistakable message of relief, the Academy has, inadvertently or otherwise, used its social media prowess to propagate myths about suicide to millions.

In a previous article, itself a follow-up to a great episode of The Campfire Project, it was noted that the structure and low barriers to entry for social networks like Twitter make it incredibly easy for stories to break on the web. Moreover, their propensity to privilege certain types of posts over others, through the inclusion of select language or media – think comical cat memes versus academic theses – allows for a level of communication, expression and reach that has the potential to dwarf traditional storytelling technologies.

In the wake of unexpected or tragic events, like the death of a beloved public figure, social networks act like glue, bonding together those who are otherwise strangers separated by space and time by giving them a common communication platform to collectively grieve. This allows participants to share their thoughts and diffuse their emotions.

Take, for instance, this series of tweets sent out by fellow comedian Norm MacDonald, who shared a touching anecdote after hearing of Williams' death. Posts like these continue to flood the web, highlighting an earnest attempt to convey Williams' charm and talent to those who never knew him personally.

It is the algorithm that is privileged to be the tweet’s main audience. Human readers are secondary.

Traditionally, media outlets like newspapers and television networks refrain from reporting suicides at all, as, according to the Centre for Disease Control, suicidal behaviours lend themselves to spreading through exposure and conversation. In its list of guidelines, the CDC notes, "public officials and the news media should carefully consider what is to be said and reported regarding suicide." Careful representation is essential in stopping the spread of suicidal thoughts and actions to others who may be under distress.

The story told by the Academy's tweet and those like it, however, stands in stark contrast to this request. Rather than addressing the event with respect, the post instead defaults to methods of share-ability on which digital social networks operate. In this instance, it is the algorithm that is privileged to be the tweet's main audience. Human readers are secondary. Unlike the tributes posted by MacDonald and others, the story told by the Academy in this message reduces those reading it, the people behind the glowing screens of their smartphones and laptops, to hosts, there only to spread the content a little bit further.

Much like a viral social media post, the CDC writes that suicide itself behaves like a contagion, and, "a scientific basis exists for concern that news coverage (re: representation) of suicide may contribute to the causation of suicide." Since we know from Facebook that social networks have the ability to spread emotion, this is precisely why they can be dangerous when certain stories that use catchy language and images are inserted into feeds alongside more common content. While celebrity suicides often receive media coverage, there is little urge to incentivize negative messaging on these platforms since established media outlets need not solely rely on the audience to actively share stories for the sake of popularity and page views. Social media, however, is built with the contagion model of content at its heart. Often times, this is to the networks' advantage, allowing stories that would otherwise languish in obscurity to rise to the top of feeds the world over. Unfortunately, there are situations when the demands of the networks work against the desires, health and safety of their users.

The Academy's tweet remains published and popular precisely because it is everything a digital story should be – poignant, pithy and sweet. Tragically, it was born from a man's death, and written not to inform an audience, but to feed the machine.