Would You Livestream Your Grief?

Is this how we share now, as the lines blur between privacy and performance?

Posted Feb 12, 2019

Three days ago, a young man posted at YouTube an hours-long livestream of himself reacting to his father's unexpected death. It has now surpassed 29,500 views.

Large dark eyes behind stylish glasses darting with that am-I-only-dreamingness such deaths can wield, he describes hospital machines. Haltingly eloquent, sometimes he daubs those eyes while gazing mutely at the all-white bedroom where he sits. Reaction-comments scroll onscreen: Some offer hugs. Some taunt. Some offer cash—because this video is monetized.

When names and donated amounts appear onscreen, the young man pauses, intones, "Thank you for the $79"—then resumes musing that flu shots might have saved his dad.

Reactions range from "We love you" to "Stay strong" to "Your mum is next" to "I know this is f***ed-up but for some reason I want to laugh."

"Man up," someone types.

"He deserved it," types another.

"Sorry for your loss."

Two rows of heart emojis.

"Crocodile tears."

"He's in heaven."

"Making money off ur dead dad."

"You are beautiful."

"Why are you grieving on camera?"

It's a cross between eavesdropping, admiring a virtuosic monologuist and pelting a clown with beanbags at the carnival until he tumbles from his perch into a water-tank.

You might say this signals a brave new world in which pain is performance: packaged to entertain strangers everywhere forever, including "friends" and "followers" who think they know the performer. Perhaps, given the blurred lines between performativity and authenticity, they do.

Having written a book on loss, I know: Sharing soothes.

But what happens when "sharing" means selling? Is livestreamed grief not bizarre but normal nowadays: the obvious recourse of cyber-generations whose deepest desire is fame?

This the era of the crowdfunded career. Digital influencers must make constant content—the most profitable is the controversial and personal—while engaging with viewers to appear accessible and real.

Hi, guys! Sorry my room is such a mess!

But when a standard income source is publicizing privacy — I puked last night. Watch me put on these tights — more borders blur: between art and life, supporter and scammer, intimate and interloper, empath and voyeur.

The grief livestream was posted by a Tokyo-based Brit named Daniel whose channel mainly comprises short sarcastic dispatches on everything from catfishers to curry pizza. Fans applaud his self-abasing honesty while hate-watchers call him childish and mean. Charmed when he compared whipped-cream fruit sandwiches, common in Japan, to houseguests behaving incomprehensibly, I started watching him last spring.

A worldwide crowd knows, because he tells us, about his gingivitis, yeast infections, social anxiety, foreign vacations, artistic acumen, acne, marriage — he titled two recent videos "my sex life is over" and "I cheated on my wife" — and, now, the deathbed noises of his dad. He carried on breathing for a few minutes after everything was turned off. ... He was still kind of moving and twitching.

Is weeping into webcams a brave modern sacrifice, baring emotions uncut, hard and wet to help strangers feel less numb and alone? Training them gently, Ghost-of-Christmas-Futurishly in feelings our ancestors aired arm-in-arm at public pyres? Is the live-death-stream a noble tutorial in real-world loss, that looming chasm at which even the worst horror films just hint?

Or is it theater? Or a slashed soul speaking out? Or both at once in an era when millions want their fun and information instant, interactive, not comprising blocks of text? Live-death-streams feel like the future to me. Someday they will eclipse essays like this.

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