Behavior

Tweets Reveal the Saddest Celebrity Deaths of 2016

Twitter users' emotional tweets in English show which celebrity deaths shook them the most this year.

The past year just took and took and took. From David Bowie in January to George Michael and Carrie Fisher in December, 2016 saw the deaths of numerous famous people.

To see which of those celebrity deaths were considered the "saddest" on Twitter, I turned to the Hedonometer. This website was created by University of Vermont researchers Peter Dodds and Chris Danforth to measure happiness using data from Twitter users. An algorithm pulls from a random subsample of tweets in English. Then each of the top tweeted words gets scored on a nine-point scale from sad at 1 to happy at 9 each day of the year. Those results, dating back to late 2008, are presented in an interactive graphic. The data does take time to get posted so Twitter emotions coinciding with the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher won't be available for a while.

"It's a strange subsample of humanity," Danforth told me.

Caveats abound, naturally. The site measures a population that only reflects about one fifth of all adult Americans. Danforth and his colleagues have found that their results do tend to correlate with traditional measures of the different age groups and demographics, however. Also, some deaths that made headlines overlapped with other major events or big national holidays, so they don't really show up on the Hedonometer.

With all of that in mind - and my fingers crossed that 2016 would just stop already with the losses - here are the saddest celebrity deaths through December 19, according to Hedonometer data.

David Bowie

The year kicked off with a kick in the gut for fans worldwide when David Bowie died of cancer on January 10, two days after turning 69 years old. Most of us didn't hear the news until first thing the next day, which was a Monday.

At first glance, the little purple dot on the Hedonometer might not seem remarkable because Mondays tend to be sad anyway. A closer look reveals what Twitter users were feeling, though.

"If you click on that dot on the 11th you'll see 'music' is up, you'll see 'cancer' is up, 'RIP,' 'sad,' 'died,'" Danforth noted. "If it happens on a Monday or people are reporting on it on a Monday, it's very different from when it can happen on a Saturday, just in terms of the background."

Alan Rickman

British actor Alan Rickman died on January 14, only a few days after David Bowie and also from cancer. The 69-year-old starred in dozens of blockbusters including "Die Hard" and played Severus Snape in all the "Harry Potter" movies. Rickman's death was a major event on the Hedonometer in 2016, and the sad words expressed that day on Twitter are proof.

"I have kids and they are huge Harry Potter fans. Snape is a character in our lives," Danforth told me. "Kids sometimes aren't aware of the complexities of human behavior. He was a complex character and I think Alan Rickman was this amazing actor, and so that was a sad one for me."

Prince

Prince died suddenly on April 21 at age 57 in his Paisley Park home in Minnesota. Weeks later, law enforcement officials reported that the cause of death was an opioid overdose.

On the Hedonometer, the happiness level takes a sharp downward turn the day that Prince died. The event marked by a tiny green dot even gets its own "Death of Prince" label. Clicking on that reveals a purple bar for sad words and, to the right, a yellow bar for "happy" words. In that yellow bar, down at the bottom are words like "guitar" and "special."

"The idea here is these are sort of the little molecules of language that people are using," Danforth said. "In this case it's not just tweets about Prince, but it's all of the tweets that were written in English that day."

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali a.k.a. "The Greatest" died on June 3 at age 74 following more than three decades with Parkinson's disease. The legendary boxer's death received a dedicated label on the Hedonometer.

"We chose to label the death of Muhammad Ali not because it was a dip or a difference from that background signal, but just because all of the words. If you click on his name there, all of the words in it are about him," Danforth said. "It doesn't give us a spike up or down, but it was definitely the thing that most people were talking about that day."

Christina Grimmie

On June 10 the 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie was signing autographs for fans after a show in Orlando when she was fatally shot by a stalker. Grimmie rose to fame on the NBC show "The Voice." Her unexpected death prompted a dedicated "major event" label in the Hedonometer. The words "shot," "sad," and "gun" top the purple words that day. Even the happy words are tinged with grief: "family," "fans," "beautiful," and "heart."

Danforth said that the major event labeling is qualitative. "We need to first be aware that there's a change," he said. "If there's a scheduled holiday, we'll often label that. If there's a day where there's a big dip because something's happened, we often will label that as well. Those tend to be surprises."

Gene Wilder

On August 29, Gene Wilder passed away following complications from Alzheimer's disease, according to a statement released by his nephew. Wilder, best known for his starring roles in movies that included "Young Frankenstein" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" was 83.

"'RIP' is the top sad word that day," Danforth said. "A lot of the stuff I saw on Twitter about him was sort of like celebrating him which, again, complicates the one-dimensional projection we've done here."

Florence Henderson and Fidel Castro

Thanksgiving tends to be one of the annual happiness high points on the Hedonometer, but Danforth pointed out that this year the holiday was more muted than it has been in the past.

"Look at that," he said, pulling up the data on his computer. "Thanksgiving is down."

Perhaps that's because two well-known people died then one right after the other. On November 24, Thanksgiving Day, it was "Brady Bunch" actress Florence Henderson on Thanksgiving Day and then Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro the following day. That Saturday is one of the sadder Saturdays in the stretch, Danforth noted, but it wasn't off-axis from the regular weekly up and down.

"The complexity of Twitter's reaction to world events makes it hard to compare one celebrity's death with another," he cautioned.

Alan Thicke

The evening after I interviewed Danforth, news broke online that Canadian actor Alan Thicke, best known for playing the reassuring father on the TV series "Growing Pains," had died at age 69 on December 13. Thicke was playing hockey with his son, Carter, when he suffered a heart attack.

It's hard to tell whether the top sad words "RIP" and "died" in the Hedonometer on December 15 actually refer to Alan Thicke, but my guess is they probably do since the news probably took time to spread.

Examining the Hedonometer from January through mid-December 2016 and comparing the annual data going back to late 2008, Danforth highlighted the low points for me. "The day after the election was the saddest day, aside from the shootings in Orlando and Dallas, in the entire eight years," he said. "There have been some sad events that weren't this year that also weren't expected, but yeah, it's not great. This hasn't been a great year."