Oh, no! Gilligan is dead! I read it on Facebook!

Bob Denver as Gilligan

Courtesy Everett Collection

Sad, and true: the Skipper’s “little buddy,” Bob Denver - who also starred, unforgettably, as Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis – died.

Seven years ago this week, as it turns out.

Didn’t remember that? You’re not alone: “news” of his death, reposted and re-tweeted breathlessly with the requisite comments of social media mourning - such as “RIP, Gilligan!” “Another part of my childhood gone” etc. – spread via Facebook and Twitter this week as if he had just taken his last breath a few hours earlier. F. Scott Fitzgerald (who, by the way, has been dead a lot longer than Bob Denver, so please don’t start any rumors) famously, and wrongly, wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Now, thanks to social media, there are second acts in American deaths. If you’re lucky – and sort of famous, but not so famous that everyone remembers where they were when they heard that you died - your death can be recirculated as news every few years, sparking a new spasm of mourning.

But at least poor Bob Denver is, as the Saturday Night Live crew used to say about General Franco, still dead. Eddie Murphy, on the other hand, appears to be very much alive - although Facebook users and the Twitterati have killed him off several times recently (along with Bill Cosby, among others).

The Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby rumors are easier to trace: they seem to spring from a totally fake “news” site - one that, on its pages, even acknowledges in the fine print that its articles are “based on zero truth” and are “complete … fiction for entertainment purposes.”

Of course, none of this can be blamed entirely on the Internet and social media: our generation was caught up in perhaps the biggest celebrity-death hoax ever, when we all studied the cover photo of Abbey Road and played Beatles’ songs backward on our record player to see if Paul was really dead. But our new ways of communicating make these rumors easier to start.

They also make them easier to stop, which is where we geezers and near-geezers come in. Generally, we’re more recent adopters of Facebook and Twitter than our children, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews are - so we’ve built up fewer bad habits on social media. We’re also, the scientists tell us, less prone to acting on impulse. So here’s my plea to my fellow boomers, and our older brothers, sisters, and parents: when you read shocking news (or really good news, or any kind of news at all) on Facebook or Twitter, pause a moment before you pass it on. Do a little checking via old-fashioned media (my two favorites are The New York Times and CNN; substitute your own favorites if you like) to see if it’s being reported there. If it’s not, hold off. It may in fact turn out to be true; if memory serves, Nora Ephron‘s death was on Twitter an hour or so before the Times confirmed it. In a case like that, waiting for confirmation before reposting or re-tweeting means you won’t be on the absolute cutting edge of up-to-the-minute coolness. But if the “news” turns out to be no news at all (Bob Denver, Eddie Murphy, “I buried Paul”) then you’ve earned the right to remind your younger relatives and friends, once again, that – especially when it comes to social media - you can’t believe everything you read.
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