When you only know your friend through the Internet, grieving their death is complex.
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Taylor Crenshaw, aka, @nicolemilfie, died suddenly at the end of August, leaving behind one daughter. She also left behind over 30,000 Twitter followers who knew the 21-year-old Sagittarius social media star for her unapologetic, hilarious commentary on fame, race, and feminism. Many users became friends with Crenshaw, corresponding through @ replies and direct messages, although they never met in person.
Claudia Cho, for instance, met Crenshaw through Twitter in January of 2015 after Crenshaw first made contact. "We'd just fav'd one another's tweets a lot and got to an understanding like, 'Yeah I see you.' When one of us was going through it, we'd slide in the DMs," she says. "Twitter is weird because it's a place where we can share whatever we want, so we get to know each other pretty deeply if you follow mutually for years." Cho wasn't alone. Following Crenshaw's death, hordes of people tweeted #RIPMilfie and retweeted favorite @nicolemilfie tweets.
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"What attracted me most was her keen cyber-self awareness and unapologetic femme presence as a young black mother," Twitter user Bianca Perez says. Perez came to care about Crenshaw after she saw Crenshaw's brutal, politically incorrect tweets about feminism. Where many Twitter accounts reek of earnestness, Crenshaw discussed issues with a wry sense of humor. In December, she tweeted, "I care about black lives, trans lives, poc lives, feminism,etc. I speak on these issues. I'm also not the nicest person." Perez and Crenshaw never met face-to-face, but Crenshaw mattered to Perez: "Although we never met in real life, @nicolemilfie was important to me because she embodied the defiant yet vulnerable flawed femme I would like be, unabashedly, online and IRL." Since Crenshaw's death, she has mourned her in a series of tweets, encouraging someone to collect Crenshaw's tweets into a book.
Mourning a friend you knew online rather than "in real life" is becoming more and more common. "Whether it's Twitter or other social platforms, people are making deeper connections than even they expect that they have," says Cadmona A. Hall, a Chicago-based grief therapist. "It doesn't matter whether or not you met in real life. This is still someone that you loved and lost, and that relationship is still worthy or grieving." Retweeting old @nicolemilfie tweets, for instance, functioned as group mourning—a sex-positive celebration of wanting dick, calling out an insufferably patriarchal skateboard company, and musing on the machinations of fame.
"It's the same sense of disbelief and denial," says Cho. "I know it's just 'internet friends,' but with technology, resources are very extendable, you can very much in real time help a friend across the country that you've never met."
While Crenshaw's death stands out, she's not the first beloved social media user to be mourned by her followers. @Crackdoubt, who was mutual followers with Crenshaw, also observed the death of Amanda, known online as @benewavvy. She wrote hilarious live-tweets of her cancer treatment. "She was a special girl; [her death] really affected me," @crackdoubt says. "She would live tweet Dr. Phil everyday, and she worked at Michael's craft store. I thought she was just so neat and interesting and always inspiring. I followed her for about a year before she even announced that she had cancer." Their only interaction consisted of @crackdoubt sending Amanda a gift from her Amazon wish list, but when a mutual Twitter friend told @crackdoubt about Amanda's death, she entered a state of mourning. "It was just so shocking and sad," @crackdoubt says. "It's so interesting: She didn't know how much she impacted me, and now she'll never know."
Most people also learned of @nicolemilfie's passing on Twitter. Isaiah Ramos, who interviewed Crenshaw for the blog Baes of the Internet, found out when he woke up from a nap, logged on Twitter, and saw a tweet that said, "RIP MILFIE." "Seeing someone you consider a friend on your timeline every single day suddenly disappear, is so weird," he says.
Perez heard rumors through mutual friends, Anal Girl (@benadryl) and Jessie Fant (@JE55ICAFANT), and then saw a timeline flooded with tweets from anxious friends and followers. She hoped Crenshaw had staged a hoax or bizarre performance art piece. "It wasn't until her mom confirmed it on Facebook that I realized it was true," she says. "It was amazing to see how people reacted so quickly online, which was very similar how they'd react upon hearing of a traditionally famous person's death."
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Sometimes, Internet friends cross over into real life. @SOICEYTRAP initially met Crenshaw online three years ago. The two then met in person at a music event in Richmond, Virginia, where Crenshaw lived, and maintained contact through text and Twitter. "She had stuff going on and tried to stay uplifted regardless of the situation, which I admired," she says.
Since Crenshaw passed, her friends have started nurturing each other to provide solace during the grieving process. "I've had a lot of females reaching out to me, trying to be my friend now. A few even hit me up to talk about their problems that they're going through currently in their life," says @SOICEYTRAP. "That was what Nicole used to do, she would speak to her fans and try to give them the best advice."
...the line between friend and fan blurs with Internet phenoms
The word fan appears when discussing the friends of social media users with thousands of followers. Their deaths can then resemble celebrities' deaths, with hordes of people tweeting about their death, but unlike mainstream celebrities, the line between friend and fan blurs with Internet phenoms. "Social media has allowed people to have that more personal connection, so it's not like when [a celebrity] died 15 years ago who you might have written a fan letter to but never wrote back," Hall says. "Someone like this who became popular through social media; that's different. [Crenshaw] went about nurturing relationships. That's real."
Most people only knew Crenshaw online. Mourning an Internet friend resembles the standard grief process, but also can accompany a stranger feeling. "I was in denial for a couple days," Ramos says. "I kind of still am. It's so different losing an online friend than one you know in real life. The pain is the same, but you feel a loss that you can't seem to make real. When you lose a friend in real life you know they're gone, but online you feel like they might come back at any second. I still check her Twitter to see if she'll tweet."