Talia Joy Castellano and the Infinite Empathy of the Internet


Yesterday, Talia Joy Castellano died of cancer at the age of 13. The reason you heard about it is that prior to her death she was a bit of a viral YouTube star. Her makeup tutorials put women who had many years of practice on her to shame.

Her sunny demeanor and brush skills began to land her television appearances, including one last September on Ellen DeGeneres’ show. But over the last six months she’d been in and out of the hospital. Her final appearance seems to be this video, from the end of May, where she says she’d been in the hospital four weeks already. She talks in a way it seems to me 13-year-olds should not have to talk.

As a sort of Internet-made star with over 14 million views of her videos and counting, it’s fitting that the announcement of her death came on her Facebook page. And that there, in the slightly off-putting way people like this die in public now, over 217,000 people “liked” the video. Of course one understands most, if not all, of those clicks of the mouse come from the sort of true empathy that sends everyone out on cancer-fundraising marathons. And that Talia’s popularity on the Internet seems to be a comfort to her family. That’s more than enough to make her particular case the kind of sweet, heartwarming story you can feel unqualifiedly good about.

(Except, of course, for the dying of cancer part. It’s a cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: fuck cancer.)

That’s not to discount the usual weirdness about the intersection of such outpourings of emotion with the much older and less salutary phenomenon of, well, gawking at tragedy. Gawker itself covered one clearer-cut case of a six-year-old girl with progeria, a disease that will likely kill her before she hits her teenage years, who was harassed by awful people, some of whom seemed bothered by the way her mother solicits money for her daughter’s medical treatments. And then there’s the more clear-cut fraudsters, the Münchausen-by-Internet folks who play on people’s empathy to suck up the attention. Those cases have made a lot of people, I think, hesitate before they click the “like” button, or donate the money.

But the thing is: empathy’s not a finite resource, nor is feeling badly for someone you’ve never met something you ought to need a quid pro quo for. There are tragedy-obsessives who traffic in this sort of thing, but assuming the obsession doesn’t morph into a stalking scenario, all they’re doing with their likes and their incessant commenting and tweeting is making a suffering person feel, well, like they mattered in the world. And if it were me, if I were the person in that hospital bed, or the family member posting on the Facebook wall, I would probably be comforted by it, too.