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.
But…why do we need to know about these things immediately? What if we were involved in something far more meaningful? Do we really need to interrupt it to find out that Michael Jackson has died?
I can understand if we’re talking about a tornado approaching, but that is very local information and even then you have to be sure you aren’t sending out too many false alarms, and early warning systems have tried to reduce their lead times over time.
I didn’t learn anything from Twitter about Michael Jackson’s death other than that he died. The story is now entirely in the hands of the traditional media, and we’re glad they’re fact-checking so that we don’t have to sort through the mess ourselves.
But Twitter sounds great if you want to live in a permanent state of crisis and a permanent world of breaking news.
I can’t believe I overlooked this part, too: Michael Jackson was one of the strongest icons of the demographic that uses Twitter the most.
Had Kim Jong Il died, what would the Twitter reaction have been? Would we even care what Twitter had to say? The only reason MJ matters on Twitter is because his death doesn’t really matter and that the facts of the matter aren’t important.
By the way:
“Recent spate of celeb deaths fuelling online rumour mill, spreading false information
Matt, all fair comments. We can’t, however, dictate what people are going to be interested in and any media organisation that ignored the Jackson story would have looked odd, to say the least (by comparison, how do you feel about John Lennon? Was that an important story? Elvis?)
The Iran election has shown that no longer is there key demographic for social media. It’s used by all sorts of people in all sorts of places for all sorts of things.
On false information: yes, this happens, which is why old media is still important: as much to refute as to confirm.
I suppose my concern is that Twitter is really only useful for the pop culture aspects of a situation and not for the grey areas that represent the truth.
During the civil war in Sri Lanka, for example, I assume the person who had my cell phone number before me was a Tamil because I was getting regular updates with some incredibly one-sided propaganda, suffixed with a message about where to congregate for protests. The length of text messages or Twitter comments forces you to remove all context or subtlety from a message (unless you are very skilled — it could well become an artform like the haiku, but few will have the skill) and this converts any useful message into rumour and gossip.
So, these technologies are without doubt excellent for organizing people quickly.
But for the purpose of informing, I guess I fail to see the difference between Twitter and the headlines coming off a newswire, except that I would be able to rely more on the accuracy of the newswire. And I don’t have the capacity to discern the truth for myself, so the latter is far more valuable to me.
I just watch it over at CNN and Fox News. =)