Was 2016 Really the Deadliest Year for Celebrities?

Prior to discussing the issue of 2016 celebrity deaths in depth, it is important to first recognise that years do not actually kill people! This said, much of the social media reaction to the supposed increase in celebrity deaths would have you believe otherwise. Data from Google Trends also suggest that this was not an uncommon perception. Searches for “2016 celebrity deaths” have been rife this year, most notably on January 10, after the death of David Bowie, April 21, following the death of Prince and the final week of December, when there were another spate of celebrities passing away.

Graph from: https://timothyks.wordpress.com/

To begin with, there are obvious issues surrounding the definition of celebrity. The graph below indicates the number of celebrity deaths reported each year by 8 different media outlets. Three of these placed 2016 to in first place, while five did not. This serves as an example of the problems surrounding the perception of celebrities, by virtue of definition.

Graph from: http://www.snopes.com/2016/12/28/2016-the-deadliest-year-for-celebrities/

Despite the ambiguity surrounding definition, there is no doubt that there are now more celebrities than ever before. Of course this is not a new phenomenon, celebrity culture really took off in the 1960s and 1970s, where the public began to take great interest in the everyday lives of many individuals such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles and George Martin. As a result, it is simply a natural process that those who first found fame in that particular era are now coming to the end of their lives. Consequently, by virtue of more celebrities existing more will of course pass away.

This aforementioned group of ‘original’ celebrities found fame during an era of TV being regarded as new and exciting, despite the paucity of channels. This resulted in a fairly limited space within which fame could be found. The current landscape is unrecognisable to the one in which the Beatles and co took off, following the decline of traditional media.


This has been replaced by online media, which consists of thousands of outlets and has been aided by the explosion of social media. This has resulted in an increase in the number of ways in which news can be consumed, as well as the speed at which this occurs. As a result, many people may perceive this additional coverage of deaths as an actual increase in the number of deaths.

Social media is of particular interest when discussing such a topic. It seems as though we collectively felt the deaths of celebrities more than ever before – 2016 was the year that mourning celebrities went viral. Unfortunately grieving on social media is one of many acts of acceptable narcissism in modern society. Within seconds of news breaking, social feeds become awash with #RIP and other such hashtags as people try and out-do one another with their public statements of grief.  The public ultimately mourn the loss of celebrities through the same medium that they had come to know them.

This strange act of collective remembering is rarely experienced when a non-celebrity dies. Heather Servaty-Seib postulated that a subculture can lose an important attachment figure in death and as a result individuals find a ‘connection and bonding in the grief’. Furthermore, one could argue that the death of a particularly relevant celebrity can generate a sense of nostalgia and possibly a sense of grief at the loss of who you were at that time you were most interested in them.

An alternative hypothesis is that the fame of celebrities who passed away in 2016 was higher than that of celebrities who has died in previous years. Consequently, as more people are aware of these individuals, more are likely to be affected when one dies. This collective mourning creates a sense that more celebrities are dying when it may not actually be the case.

Gizmodo came up with an excellent method for gauging how famous someone is, so to enable comparisons to be made. They used a similar process to Google, which decides the order of its results page by assessing the number of pages linking to it. In a slight variation, Gizmodo analysed the number of other Wikipedia pages linking to any given individual, to use as a proxy to measure the level of fame. For example, 2209 alternative Wikipedia pages link to Muhammad Ali’s page, but only 170 to that of Liz Smith. This suggests the former heavyweight boxer is many times more well-known than the actress. Gizmodo processed data on 39,313 people who Wikipedia list as having died over the past six years. The results were certainly interesting.

Graph from: http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2017/01/2016-really-was-the-worst-year-for-famous-people-dying-heres-the-data-that-proves-it/

Above, you can see the cumulative notability score for all celebrities who passed away that year along the Y-axis. This displays the huge gap between 2016 and any other of the past six years. The collective fame of the celebrities who died in 2016 is considerably more than years gone by.

Below you can see the number of celebrity (as ranked by Wikipedia) deaths in the past six years.  2016 was indeed the worst year for celebrity deaths, (by virtue of total number) but only by a small margin. The difference in impact on the public however was far greater than these numbers suggest, as the aforementioned cumulative notability scores demonstrate.

Graph from: http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2017/01/2016-really-was-the-worst-year-for-famous-people-dying-heres-the-data-that-proves-it/

Of course there is no established measure for answering the question of whether 2016 really was the deadliest years for celebrities due to so many subjective concepts. Though many suggestions have been made – and only time will tell if celebrity deaths will now level out due to the increased number of them – it appears that Gizmodo came up with the most comprehensive explanation for the supposed outbreak.

This highlights the power of data when combined with a degree of know-how and innovation. We’re keen data-junkies at Mintwist, for obvious reasons. Data is the lifeblood of the SEO strategies, Paid Search campaigns and Content Strategies that we leverage for all of our clients. Want to see how we can make data work for you? Drop us a line.


Some more articles published recently