Instagram brought us so close to Caroline Flack that her death seems personal

Leah Green
Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Caroline Flack has become a familiar figure in the lives of fans of Love Island, like me, over the past five years. She was in our living rooms every summer and, for those of us who use social media, on our phones almost every day.

Through Instagram stories, we watched her on nights out, playing with her dog, singing at a piano and celebrating her 40th birthday. I had private thoughts about her boyfriends, her taste, and her presenting style. My friends and I occasionally discussed her as if she were an acquaintance on the periphery of our social circle. Her posts were similar to those we would share ourselves.

Like many others I’ve spoken to, I’ve been surprised by how hard the news of her death has hit. Of course, it doesn’t come close to the pain of those who actually knew her. But the grief feels somehow different from previous sadness over the death of a celebrity. For fans of Amy Winehouse, her music soundtracked their lives but they didn’t know what the inside of her flat was like. We may have watched all of Robin Williams’s films, but we never knew the man behind the comedy.

Related: 'It chokes me': Russell Brand compares Caroline Flack to Amy Winehouse

Through social media, Flack chose to make herself accessible to us in ways earlier celebrities could not. Her flaws, vulnerabilities and romantic struggles were laid bare. In the online arena where relatability is king, her candidness succeeded in keeping us engaged: the less perfect she was, the more there was to connect with or, in less generous moments, to talk about.

But in truth we knew very little. Our impression of her – as someone with loving friends, and a rich and interesting life – seems so at odds with a person who would take their own life, the loneliest act possible. Suddenly the shallowness of our understanding became sickeningly clear.

All we have left in her absence are the things written about her: freshly published tributes and a backlog of negative articles (one posted the day before she died was hurriedly deleted). Just as her celebrity and social media presence allowed us to feel a connection to her, it led parts of the press to act as if they owned her. She opened her life and they raked over her every move for more and more stories.

We’re left to contemplate our place in this ecosystem: were we passive observers or culpable consumers of this content? We didn’t write anything mean. We loved her show, chucked her some likes on Instagram. But we were invested in her life, and that meant we sometimes consumed the bad press as well as the good.

The tabloids couldn’t have done less to disguise their glee at her fall from grace. The upcoming trial would have provided intimate details to be reported, twisted and ridiculed. And the truth is, I would probably have read some of it. So would many of the other millions who followed her on social media. If you’re happy to watch someone blowing out their birthday candles, why wouldn’t you be interested in that same person being charged with a serious crime?

There are, obviously, no easy answers. It’s too late to reverse the way we’ve opened up our lives, and in turn inserted ourselves into those of others. It’s unrealistic to ask celebrities to shut out the fans who have got them to where they are; and it is unfair to blame people for enjoying the intimacy they believe they share. We’re as trapped in the web of TV, tabloids and social media as those we follow. But no matter how enticing the gossip may be, we need to stop incentivising the tabloid press to treat anyone in the public eye as fair game, just because they try to let us into their lives.

Even if we try to consume celebrity culture more ethically, the fact remains that we have entered new territory in our relationship to stars. Flack’s death comes as less and less of our lives are treated as off limits. As the line between celebrity and reality continues to blur, so do our feelings. We should be ready for more of this new, complex, grief.

• Leah Green is a Guardian video producer

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email or In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at