Audette-Longo: On the monarchy, the medium shapes our messages

© Provided by Ottawa Citizen Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wave to the crowd from the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London on April 29, 2011, following their wedding.

Shortly after 7 a.m. Friday, I opened my phone to run through my morning media ritual: work emails, personal emails, message notifications, Twitter.

At the top of my news feed was a post from The Royal Family (which has been on the social media site since 2009), featuring a black-and-white portrait of a uniformed Prince Philip and an announcement of his death that morning at Windsor Castle. “It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen has announced the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh,” the message began.

Within a few minutes of publication, it had already racked up thousands of responses, likes and retweets. By mid-afternoon Friday, the thread of responses posted numbered more than 33,000. There were many personal expressions of condolence, but also critiques of the British monarchy and colonialism, and shared images, short videos and pop culture references reflecting deep cynicism.

These responses, posted by regular people all over the world, stood in contrast to the newspaper posts: “Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, dies aged 99” wrote the United Kingdom’s Guardian , followed by invitations to “share your tributes and memories”; “The longest-serving royal consort passed away after seven decades of steadfast support,” wrote The Times ; “Her Majesty’s biggest challenge: How the Queen must now go on without her ‘rock’ Philip beside her,” wrote The Daily Mail .

Here in Ottawa on CBC Radio, breaking news of the prince’s death briefly took over the local morning broadcast, pivoting to tributes to his life, his public service and his many visits to Canada.

What is interesting about all this is the different media languages we have developed for talking about – and even to – the royal family. And by “we,” I mean the media-makers who publish newspapers or produce broadcasts, and the media-makers who happen upon and respond to international news when they are checking their phones.

In the United Kingdom or Canada, royal weddings and royal deaths might be the stuff of solemn state broadcasts, imagined to be watched, listened to or streamed live by nations of people who are brought together by such events. Generations of media researchers have pondered how these royal moments hold people together and create some sense of community and shared culture.

I saw some of this community in 2011 when I covered Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, for Postmedia News in London. Thousands of people from all over the world travelled to the United Kingdom, hoping to see the royal wedding and the bride and groom. On the day of the wedding, I interviewed people who had camped overnight outside Buckingham Palace. I met people wrapped in flags from home or novelty flags featuring the couple’s faces.

Most fell silent when vows were exchanged, broadcast from speakers placed outside. Most looked up and cheered when the royal family, including the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, stepped out onto the palace balcony to wave at the gathered crowd. On Friday, I couldn’t help but recall the Canadians I met who made the trip because this royal moment was special for them.

But the media languages we have for talking about the royal family include more than the spectacles or rituals of watching their lives unfold from afar or from just outside the palace gates. How we understand them, how much we care to share in their grief or celebrations, depends on our lived experiences, our age, the media we encounter, the histories we know. We may be influenced by fictionalized entertainment, scenes from Netflix’s The Crown crossed with actual news footage. We may remember televised interviews given by family members over the years.

And we also now have the potential to speak back with as much solemnity or casualness or even anger as feels right in the moment. One person posted an informal “I’m so sorry sending my deepest regrets,” complete with emojis. Another posted “rest in peace my dude.” On Friday, people used social media to let the royal family know they were in their prayers, or shared other observations and feelings, the way they might speak to someone they knew: informally, immediately, and certainly very differently from how people might have spoken to a royal family member in 1921.

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