This is a piece for my weekly Loose Wire Service column. I’m posting it here because it’s timely. That’s why there are no internal links in it.
Michael Jackson is dead. You’ve probably heard that already. But where did you hear it?
Chances are you read about it on twitter. Or more or less anywhere except for the traditional media channels, unless you’re late riser and live in Asia.
Jackson’s death, more than any other news event since 9/11, has captivated the world. Everyone knows who he is/was, and everyone is affected, to some degree, by his death.
But his passing is as likely to be remembered for the manner of its telling as for anything else. Jackson’s death was an online death—at the heart of the West Coast, at the heart of the Internet.
At 1921 GMT, one of his aides made a 911 call, saying Jackson was unconscious and not breathing. Paramedics arrived a few minutes later; by 2000 GMT he is in the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
2010 GMT: Ten minutes after that an online entertainment site called x17online.com posted photos and a brief story that Jackson had been hospitalized.
Twenty minutes later, at 2030 GMT, TMZ.com, a bigger entertainment website, posted a bulletin: “Michael Jackson—Cardiac Arrest”.
Barely an hour has passed since the medics were called. Twenty minutes later E-Online reports Jackson’s hospitalization.
But still no word from the big media.
Wikipedia—the community-edited encyclopedia—cites the E Online article at 2112 GMT.
Finally, seven minutes after that, the French news agency Agence France Presse quotes TMZ.com and E! Online as saying that Jackson had been rushed to hospital.
A minute later TMZ.com was saying that Jackson was dead; the same time as Thomson Reuters, another news agency quoted the Los Angeles Times website as saying Jackson had been rushed to hospital.
TMZ.com had jumped the gun, but only in medical terms: Jackson was pronounced dead at 2126 GMT.
It’s not easy for traditional media to cover any type of story these days, what with so many amateurs, semi-amateurs, so-called pro-ams (professional amateurs), in the game.
But all that tells me is that the game probably needs to be changed.
Traditional media are used to confirming things before they run them.
But what happens in a world where information travels so quickly, through so many different channels?
It no longer makes sense to say nothing until you can say something.
In this case a news service with extensive contacts was able to trump traditional media for the biggest entertainment story since John Lennon’s murder in 1980.
And not just by a few minutes. By an hour.
The second act is even more revealing.
With mainstream news only still saying Jackson had been hospitalized—while Jackson’s body was being flown by helicopter to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office—the TMZ story was now finding its way onto twitter.
At 2131 the first link to the story appeared on twitter. A minute earlier, the two million odd followers of CNN’s breaking news twitter feed received word that Jackson had gone to hospital.
Now the word is really out. But word of what? Is Jackson dead? Hospitalized? What gives?
From about 2140 Internet users start to hammer Google News for information.
So much so, Google’s engineers think it’s some kind of hacker attack and throw up roadblocks (those messages asking you to enter letters in a text box to prove you’re not a computer.)
From now on, for the next few hours, the average speed for downloading news sites doubles, from about four seconds to nine.
So many people try to update the Wikipedia page on Michael Jackson that the editors decide, at 2145 GMT, to freeze it until the situation is clearer.
History is being written, with or without the mainstream media.
At 2150 Facebook users start to alter their updates more frequently.
At exactly the same time Twitter users are clicking on the TMZ.com link at the rate of 42 per second—its peak.
Plays of Michael Jackson songs on the online music sharing site Last.fm surge; from about 1,000 to 35,000.
Michael Jackson is being mourned online even before he’s been publicly declared dead.
At 2219 GMT the top trend on twitter—the phrase most often and widely used in users’ updates—is RIP Michael Jackson.
Five minutes later Reuters news agency quotes the Los Angeles Times website as saying Jackson is dead. A minute later MSNBC.com confirm his death.
Five minutes later, CNN.com joins in. Two minutes later, so does Wikipedia.
Now he is, officially, dead—an hour after being pronounced dead, and more than an hour after an entertainment website, and millions of people online believed him so.
By 2234 20% of all messages on twitter—and there are many—are about Michael Jackson.
An hour later the LA Coroner confirms Jackson’s death, and, eight minutes later, so does Reuters.
It’s a strange new world where information travels this quickly. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing that traditional media tries to confirm stories the old fashioned way.
But the problem is the gap it leaves.
A gap between these new upstart news services, which may or may not be right, but which are able, through the power of the Net, to pass word out to the world, entirely bypassing tradtional media.
Twitter, in that sense, is the last piece of the puzzle.
Google News buckled under the pressure, firstly from all the attention and then latterly because the results from its own little automatic bots which go out and index news pages didn’t show up on Google News until 2246—an hour and a half after TMZ.com’s story saying Jackson was dead.
(This according to the search optimization website SEOmoz, which put together a great chronology on the story, much of which I’ve used here. http://bit.ly/3blDAC)
But maybe Google doesn’t matter anymore, when you’ve got “real time search” like twitter.
Twitter lets you see everything in real time, and, when something big like this happens, everyone wants the information in real-time.
Traditional media now has to figure out a way of giving it to them—without, preferably, ditching their values of getting the facts right first.