March 1, 2012
At 11:25 pm, Andrew Breitbart, founder of the arch-conservative Breitbart News, lobbed a somewhat nasty tweet at a perceived enemy. A short while later, he went for a walk in his Brentwood neighborhood, dog in tow, whereupon he collapsed to the ground. At 12:19 am, less than an hour after hitting Send on his final tweet, he was pronounced dead at UCLA Medical Center. Cause of death: heart attack. Breitbart was 43.
Here, for all eternity, is his final tweet, his last public utterance, spelling errors and all:
After reading of his passing, I asked Twitter a question:
It was just idle banter, but as Jamie and I discussed it, we decided it would be an interesting experiment. I was excited by the design challenge while Jamie, an engineer, saw it as an opportunity to master Python.
I registered the domain and got started on research and design; Jamie started laying down some code. A few weeks later, we launched The Tweet Hereafterwith a handful of final tweets including, of course, Breitbart’s.
What happened next surprised us.
It went a little viral.
We got a surprising amount of traffic, at one point clocking 80,000 unique visitors per month. It generated some attention, was featured on some techsites, and resulted in Jamie being interviewed by former CBC radio broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi. (I’d link to the Ghomeshi interview, but the CBC scrubbed every trace of him from their site after his downfall.)
Many people thought the site was macabre, and rightfully questioned our intentions. We posted the following statement to the site to explain our intent:
The Tweet Hereafter is a collection of last tweets by notable, newsworthy, famous, or infamous people.
It was inspired by the revelation that, in the age of social media, those of us who post will ultimately leave behind a final message, intentional or not.
Those messages will exist long after we’re gone, and what they say about us may or may not have much to do with the lives we led.
And, unlike in times past, we won’t enjoy the luxury of having our last words rewritten to make them memorable or to deepen their meaning. For example, Geothe’s famous deathbed pronouncement, “More light!” had nothing to do with a metphorical plea for more life. His actual utterance, unedited, was, “Open the second shutter so that more light may come in.” He was perpetually complaining about his room being too dark.
The point being, we were seeking an existential vibe, not a macabre one. What you post today could be your legacy. That indulgent Instagram selfie, Facebook humblebrag, or nasty tweet could be the very last words you’re known for. And if you’re famous or die in an otherwise noteworthy manner, that post could be telegraphed to millions, held up as an eternal summary and assessment of your entire existence. It’s a phenomenon unique to our time; in the past, only a select few might have their last words captured for eternity.
The criteria we used when deciding whether to feature a tweet was fairly minimal: time of death should be no more than 24–48 hours after the tweet was sent; the tweeter must have been a noteworthy figure, or have passed in a noteworthy manner or event, and they must be over 13; no private tweets would be shared; and if asked by a family member, we would remove any final tweet. (So far, no one has asked.)
There are 227 tweets on the The Tweet Hereafter. The top causes of death are vehicle accident (36) and gunshot (30); suicide is involved in 24 more, and heart attack another 20. After that, it’s a mix of causes including accidental falls; overdoses; helicopter and plane crashes; war; drownings; avalanche; and even a bull goring.
Despite the fact that there are some common causes, however, each tweet stands alone, invites interpretation, encourages reflection. Here are some I find particularly poignant.
Nipsey Hussle: grammy-nominated rapper, songwriter, entrepreneur, and community activist; tweeted less than 45 minutes before being gunned down by a rival.
One could categorize his final words as irony, coincidence, or just a damn shame.
August Ames: pornographic actress; tweeted less than 24 hours before committing suicide.
They say anger is a secondary emotion, masking things like fear or pain.
Daphne Caruana Galiz: journalist and anti-corruption activist; tweeted 20 minutes before being killed in a car bomb attack.
Did she have any idea how far her adversaries might go? She must have.
Charlie Murphy: comedian, writer, and Eddie Murphy’s brother; tweetedbefore going to sleep. He succumbed to leukemia before waking.
I wonder if he knew this would be his last utterance. It seems he found peace.
Pieter Hintjens: software developer, author, and tech advocate; tweeted less than 30 minutes before undergoing voluntary euthanasia in response to a terminal cancer prognosis.
Not to contradict the dead, but he did have last words, and they were poetically matter of fact.
Deanna Cook: Texas woman; killed minutes after desperate calls to 911 and posting this tweet.
The classic tale of a victim naming their killer before dying, this time in a tweet.
Dan Wheldon: British race car driver; tweeted minutes before dying in a pile-up during the 11th lap of the IndyCar World Championship in Las Vegas.
Tragic, but life-affirming. Green!!!
For years, Jamie and I have maintained the Tweet Hereafter in our spare time. Some tweets are suggested to us by visitors, others generated from news stories, and every few days, I scour Wikipedia’s notable deaths for potential final tweets.
Now, however it’s time to move on: The Tweet Hereafter is coming to an end. Where the site once was, we’ve put up a static landing page linking to the ghost of The Tweet Hereafter. As long as the good people at the Internet Archive are there to channel its spirit, The Tweet Hereafter will have a final resting place.
Gone, but not forgotten.
A moment of reflection
A journalist once asked me what I learned from this project. I said, “We shouldn’t define human beings by a couple hundred hastily typed characters, but it’s difficult not to.”
I was also asked what insights I’ve gleaned from the tweets themselves. Some are just shocking, like Reeva Steenkamp’s final tweet the day before being murdered by her boyfriend, Olympian Oscar Pistorius.
There’s an entire sad novel in that tweet, maybe more. But the tweets that hit me hardest, the ones that inspire the deepest contemplation, are often the most mundane, the ones completely devoid of foreboding and premonition, save for what we imbue them with.
In the mundane I find heartbreak and a simple kind of heroism, a life lived until it isn’t lived any more. It could happen at any moment.
Finally, the experience of curating tweets for The Tweet Hereafter has inspired me to pause before I tweet, ‘gram or post. I ask myself, what if these are my last words? What do they say about me?
It’s not a bad thing to consider: words matter. Any utterance might be used as the summation of an entire existence.