How to Die—and Grieve—in 2020

Welcome to the first edition of Plaintext. I’m Steven Levy, WIRED’s editor at large, and Plaintext is my personal look at what’s happening in the world of digital technology—who makes it and how it affects us.At first, this weekly column will be free for everyone to access. Eventually, only WIRED subscribers will get Plaintext as a newsletter. You’ll get to keep reading it in your inbox by subscribing to WIRED (discounted 50%) , and in the process getting all of our amazing tech coverage in print and online.

This initial version has death as its subject. I promise they won’t all be this morbid!

The Plain View

In the past few days, we’ve seen the passing of three giants: Clay Christensen, Leila Janah, and Kobe Bryant. In each case, an unmoderated memorial service broke out on the internet. Long gone are the days when New York Times obituaries, the Oscars of the genre, framed the way many of us mourned the loss of public figures. Those are now sideshows to instant tsunamis of discussion. We don’t accept handed-down summaries of those we lost—we participate. We write them ourselves.

But all too often, these fast-twitch reactions end up churning up a melee. Today’s polarized web reflects and aggravates the ill will present in the world at large, almost guaranteeing that a major event like the sudden loss of a basketball god will trigger complications and even enmity.

As soon as TMZ broke the news of Kobe’s death, the entire internet madly ululated. Those who hadn’t given a thought to Kobe in a year were posting that their pain was such they couldn’t get out of bed. But others were swift to bring up the 2003 incident when he was accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel worker; he ended up settling the court case. To them, the unmitigated celebration of the lost star ignored not just that incident but the experience of all who suffered sexual assaults or harassment. Death Twitter’s canonization of Kobe collided head-on with the #MeToo movement’s cultural legacy.
There’s a world where those complexities might be balanced, but Twitter and Facebook are not those worlds. In a full obituary, a book-length account, or even a Wikipedia entry, a biographical blemish can be contextualized . But context and nuance are nowhere in tweets and Facebook comments. Thus grief was joined by grievance, the coin of the social media realm.