How The Internet Died With Michael Jackson

I was active on Twitter last night when the news of Michael Jackson’s cardiac arrest broke on TMZ. When the same website reported that he had died about an hour later, the impact on the internet was dramatic. This situation was then furthered by the world looking to confirm TMZ’s report – when CNN and the BBC (finally) legitimised the news, the internet almost stopped.

  • The Los Angeles Times was one of the first major publications to state that Jackson was dead. When CNN mentioned this as a source, the LA Times website was brought down by the traffic influx, receiving over 2.3 million page views in one hour.
  • Twitter went into a 5-6 minute delay. I saw the fail whale for the first time in weeks. TweetVolume reported that more than 65,000 tweets reported on the original TMZ story within the first hour – around 5,000 per minute at peak. “We saw an instant doubling of tweets per second the moment the story broke,” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told the Los Angeles Times. “This particular news about the passing of such a global icon is the biggest jump in tweets per second since the U.S. presidential election.” Ultimately, updates about Jackson would double Twitter’s update frequency, and the singer currently occupies seven of Twitter’s ten top trending topics.
  • The number of status updates on Facebook was triple the average. Despite this, Facebook remained operable throughout.
  • America Online’s AIM instant messenger product – which was undergoing some minor scheduled maintenance around the time of the Jackson news – was severely impacted by the story and went down for 40 minutes. “Today was a seminal moment in Internet history. We’ve never seen anything like it in terms of scope or depth,” an AOL spokesperson said.
  • An edit war on Jackson’s page on Wikipedia ultimately forced the online encyclopaedia to freeze.

Traffic to all the leading online news websites in North America was 20% above the average.

Earlier the same day, Farrah Fawcett also died. After Jackson’s death was confirmed, false reports of the passing of Jeff Goldblum and Harrison Ford put more pressure on global web servers.

Other ‘casualties’ of the event include celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who suggested that Jackson was “either lying or making himself sick.” The reaction from other celebrities on Twitter to Hilton’s story is possible the greatest-single example of egomania and platitudes we have seen on the network. It is, of course, all about them. Hilton has now edited his post, but one imagines a fair bit of damage will have been done to his reputation.

Or will it? Jackson’s death is a bit of a curio. It’s one of those things that, with the power of hindsight, you find yourself thinking, “We should have seen this coming.” It suddenly seems obvious. Jackson’s fame and/or infamy so transcends that of the typical pop star that despite releasing no music of significance since the mid 1990s, and being caught up in numerous legal battles regarding allegations of child molestation, he remained a much-loved figure around the world. Jackson’s fans are amongst the most loyal of any performer in history, and it’s because of this many feel that as an entertainer he is on a par with Elvis, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and other legends.

For the rest of us – and I consider myself a fan of a lot of his early musical work, but not of the man himself – Jackson’s death is perhaps a little surreal. Almost dream-like. To me, it feels like we don’t know where to put it. On one hand, somebody has died. On another, because of the events surrounding the latter part of Jackson’s life, it’s difficult to know how to feel about his death. Where do we file it? Is it a tragedy? Was it inevitable? Is it justice?

It’s not for me to say. What is of note here is the impact stories like this can have on the infrastructure of the internet throughout the world. Jackson was a major star, and the early rumours and lack of clarification of his demise played a big part in the downtime and delays of many of the websites caught up in the story, but this event isn’t on a par with something like the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. It isn’t even close. We can’t accurately measure the impact of that day against the resources we have now – Twitter, Facebook, interactive online newspapers – as none of them existed. Even Google was just a baby, and one still trying to find its feet.

The internet is meant to be our greatest resource; Twitter is increasingly being hyped as the delivery medium for real-time news.  Which poses an interesting problem: the next time the world experiences a truly global, life-shattering news event, will the internet cope? And if it fails, can we cope without it?