What we can learn from fake tears for Paul Walker

By Greg Stevens

What are charities that raise money for the poor and the homeless doing wrong? Sure, they can raise some dough, especially during the holiday seasons. But no matter how many news stories we see about children starving in Africa, or how many harrowing videos we watch of homeless old people with flies buzzing around their heads, the general public never seems to get all that worked up about it.

You know what gets the public worked up? Celebrities. This past weekend, four regular people died in New York City in a train derailment, and Paul Walker and another guy died in a car crash. It was all reported as news, but social media overwhelmingly responded to just one thing: the death of Paul Walker.

If only we could get people to respond to the deaths of the poor and the homeless in the same way, it would almost surely mean the end to poverty and hunger!

Well, there is a solution. Luckily, a careful examination of the social media reaction to Paul Walker’s death could hold a key to understanding what charities do wrong… and what they can do to fix it!

A case study in social media emotions

Why did thousands of people take to social media to express grief, anguish, torment and regret over the death of Paul Walker? The answer cannot simply by the fact that it was tragic.

His death was tragic, of course, as is the death of any human being killed in an accident and at such a young age. Certainly that deserves an acknowledgement, and a moment of silence as we reflect on the nature of chance and mortality.

But such calm reflection is not what happened on social media this weekend.

Forever crying. I am in shock. I am in tears. We miss you so much. I can’t handle this agony. I’m in great despair.

These are the sorts of words that came from hundreds, if not thousands, of people on Twitter and Facebook who have never met Paul Walker, and who have no real connection to him.

A semantic analysis of some of the tweets can give us some clue about why the death of Paul Walker was felt so intensely by some of the general public.

Hashtag Tears

When reading these tweets, it is important to bear in mind that we will never know whether all of these people were actually driven to tears by the death of “the beautiful Paul Walker”.

It is more than likely that the percentage of people who are actually in tears when they tweet “#tears” is roughly the same as the percentage of people who are actually laughing out loud when they tweet “LOL” – which is almost certainly close to zero.

From a psychological perspective, however, it is important to note that they wanted the world to think of them as being in tears. (We will come back to this below.)

Also, there are probably people who decided that Paul Walker’s death could be used to increase their Klout scores, real or imagined.

Retweet to show respect

Whatever their motivations, the sheer volume of social media reactions like these begs the question: why is it that so many people who have absolutely no connection at all to Paul Walker’s life claim to be, and even believe themselves to be, shattered to their emotional core at the news of his death?

Once again, the answer cannot simply be the fact that it is a tragedy. These people on Twitter are not beating their chests over the death of the driver of the car in the accident that killed Paul Walker. His death was also tragic, but most of them do not even know his name.

Roger Rodus, the driver in the car accident that killed Paul Walker. He also died.

Roger Rodus, the driver in the car accident that killed Paul Walker. He also died.

The answer is quite simple.

Social distance and social desire

People want to pretend that they are friends with celebrities. They want to convince themselves that they have a relationship with famous singers, actors, and public personalities. It makes them feel important. It makes them feel like their lives are not as mundane as they really are.

If you ask someone why he or she sees Paul Walker’s death not merely as a tragic loss, but as a source of overwhelming anguish, the answer is usually something like this: “I’ve watched him in so many movies, it’s like he’s been in my home. I feel like I know him.”

But of course you do not know him, dear. That is a pretentious fantasy. It is an attempt to believe that you are a little closer to fame, beauty and fortune than you really are.

With social media comes another psychological angle, as well: projecting an image to the world.

When a person obsesses over a celebrity’s weekend plans or favorite ice cream flavour,  it is because he wants to convince himself that he has a personal relationship with that celebrity.

When a person takes to social media to talk about it, it is because he wants to convince everybody else.

If you were actually friends with Paul Walker, chances are you were overcome with grief and a desperate sense of shock and loss. Chances are also that you did not feel the need to broadcast those feelings to the entire world via Twitter and Facebook.

Broadcasting those feelings was motivated by something more than a simple feeling of loss; it was motivated by the need to have other people see how very close you felt you were to Paul Walker.

This is the key to the American psyche: People want to be associated with people who are famous and beautiful. And people will do anything to give the world the impression that they have some connection, no matter how tenuous, to fame and fortune.

Harnessing vanity

How can this solve world hunger? The answer is again simple: make poor, starving, and homeless people famous and hot. That would be the single most reliable way to get people to care.

The marketing of most charity organizations gets this exactly backward. They will show pictures of downtrodden, dirty, and put-upon people in order to drum up sympathy. The masses do respond somewhat with sympathy, at least in the short run.

But in the end, people will turn their heads away from the downtrodden. For the same reason that people pay attention to those whom they want to be like, they will avoid looking at or being around those whom they do not want to be like. In the end, they will always turn away from people whom they do not see as glamorous.

We seem to have a need to increase our psychological distance from the poor and homeless, in part to convince ourselves that we are not like them – and that we could never become like them.

As Americans, if we are going to grieve – if we are to emotionally invest – then the object of our attention must be someone that we fantasize about being. In short, it has to be someone hot or famous.

So can somebody please scrub up those poor homeless people, and give them a television show? Perhaps an action movie or two. Then, when a hot, famous homeless person dies, perhaps the glorious momentum of social media can really be put to some good use.