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The death of comedian Robin Williams and social media mourning

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"Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

It is a line often attributed to Mark Twain, but it can now be applied to another great humorist: Robin Williams.

Twain, who actually died in 1910, was mourned at his passing, but not on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Social media has become a giant, electronic mourning book where, over a period of mere hours, millions leave messages.

Many are touching and personal and give witness to the deep connection Williams inspired among fans of all ages. Others take various news reports and video clips viral, showing everything from tributes from talk show hosts like Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon to the late comedian cavorting with a remarkably affectionate gorilla.

Facts and feelings, however, can be buried under an avalanche of instant shared expression. Facebook can hurt as well as heal. There no longer seems to be a respectable gap between public knowledge and private mourning. Social media has turned us all into minute mourners, accelerating a news cycle that seems, in the wake of Williams' sudden death, out of control.

The deluge has been astounding and unprecedented. Suddenly millions knew the sweet, funny details of Norm Macdonald's first "Tonight Show" appearance with Johnny Carson and how fellow guest Williams, the "world's funniest man," calmed the rookie by pretending to be his tailor. In terms of word-of-mouth, 20 tweets did what, at one time, only an appearance on Carson's "Tonight Show" could do.

The Internet response was local as well as international. "Murdoch Mysteries" star Yannick Bisson, an avid cyclist, tweeted that Williams made a Dundas, Ont., cycle store his second home while shooting "Man of the Year" there in 2005. Many, many others shared personal stories that often bore witness to Williams' random acts of kindness.

Social media also, unfortunately, can sting. Zelda Williams shut down her Instagram account in the wake of her father's death. That he felt like family to so many fans spoke to his warmth and relatability. Lost in the Facebook frenzy, however, is the fact that his actual family is grieving the loss of a father, sibling and husband.

"I shared him with a world where everyone was taking their photo with him," Zelda wrote on her last Instagram post. The 25-year-old felt bullied and judged by social media, writing that "the real private moments I shared with him were precious, quiet, and, believe it or not, not full of photos or 'selfies.'"

Facebook can also spread outrageous misinformation. "'Mrs. Doubtfire' killed him" was one preposterous headline, posted by a well-known Internet news provider, linking to a report in a British tabloid. There a sensational story suggesting how a film role had led Williams to "particularly vulnerable to depressive episodes." This "news" was attributed to a friend who "told the paper."

The sad truth is that no one was there in Williams' final moments. Only he knew the demons that killed him.

As someone who writes about television, I had the great gift of meeting Williams a few times, especially in the past year with his short-lived CBS sitcom "The Crazy Ones."

Returning to series television in a sitcom may have been an impossible challenge. His reputation, in Jimmy Fallon's words this week, as "the Muhammad Ali of comedy" created unrealistic expectations. Williams probably should have followed Ted Danson's example and headlined a drama such as "CSI." An Oscar winner for "Good Will Hunting," the Julliard grad could have had an unlimited third act ahead of him in anthology showcases such as "True Detective" and "Fargo."

Film beat colleagues who knew him better, such as Bruce Kirkland at the Toronto Sun or author and film historian Leonard Maltin, smiled just talking about him. In the three or four occasions I saw him, he was as funny as you would have hoped and more genuine than you might have imagined. Ask him a question and you got either a bit or a bit of truth — sometimes both in the same bracing response.

The jokes stopped when he was asked about his heart operation. Williams had a valve replaced in 2009 and, months later, was before the press promoting an HBO comedy special. I wondered if he was a changed man in a big-picture way, if he had had an epiphany.

"That life-expanding experience," he replied, his quick mind on fire as usual. "Walks on the beach with a defibrillator, uh-huh. Yeah, I think it really opens you up, literally."

He talked about how David Letterman — an old comedy club pal and a fellow heart surgery survivor — had leaned in during a commercial break and asked, "Do you find yourself getting emotional?"

Williams understood. He was moved by the outpouring of affection by friends and strangers after his heart surgery and had reached out to many in those days and months.

"We can make it, you know, with a little bit of comedy, a little bit of laughter," he told reporters gathered on that day.

So I understand exactly the desire to have been Robin Williams' Facebook friend, his Twitter follower, his Instagram pal. I too want to share the great feeling of joy Williams sparked. I just wish reports of his death had been exaggerated in the Twain sense, instead of via Twitter.

———

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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