So, Michael Jackson is dead. I’m really not interested in the heartfelt messages of strangers displaying strange emotional reactions for a person they don’t even know, but what does interest me is the way the story unfurled last night.
I was planning to go to sleep quite early. It was about 2230 when I was going to hit the sack with my book. I had a quick look at what my Facebook friends were up to before switching off for the night and I noticed one single status update mentioning that they would “miss” Michael Jackson. Hmmm, what was that all about I thought? So, I went to the BBC to see if there was a story, and sure enough, Michael Jackson had been rushed to hospital in Los Angeles.
I went immediately to Twitter to get the latest gossip from the tweets and blogs and found that TMZ had already declared Michael Jackson dead. The online discussion was then more focused on whether this was true or not. Every media outlet except for TMZ was running the story as a heart attack, possibly with Jackson being in a coma, but no death being confirmed.
Everyone know TMZ is pretty reliable. They have an underground network of informers working for them in the medical teams, the fire service, and police service – they get the scoops because they are paying cash to people for leads. However, with none of the major media outlets confirming a death, the Twitter universe exploded into a constant rumour mill. I did a search on Jackson’s name and looked at the results. By the time I finished scanning down through a few tweets to see if anything looked interesting, the search had another 1400 results it wanted to display to me.
There was an infectious feeling – people started swapping links to more information and confirmations that the story has been confirmed. Sky News appeared to have confirmed, but a closer look at their story suggested that they were using ‘Jackson is dead’ headlines, but with the story actually being a report on what TMZ was saying.
The first major media source that I saw confirming the reports was the LA Times. Once they started running the story as confirmed it felt like only a matter of time before others confirmed. CBS was next. But even at this point, there were wire services, like PA, still unable to confirm the news.
What’s interesting – as someone who is British – is that the real watershed moment came when the BBC TV news announced that this was confirmed and independently verfified news. The BBC verification caused the entire online community to now believe that it had to be true and there was no more room for it to just be malicious gossip. CNN and the others followed soon after, though the BBC news website was not updated for several minutes after the TV news had announced the confirmation – presumably some hack was sitting there trying to bash a story together.
The BBC TV news had an obituary package immediately ready to run, detailing the life and times of Michael Jackson. I know they get these things ready in advance for many celebrities, but full marks to the BBC team for having that one ready to roll. After all, who would have suspected Jackson would die at 50?
So, I gave up and went to bed at about 1am. It was an intense experience and incredibly social. Swapping information and confirmations of news with the online community I already know – and a whole bunch of new people. I managed to annoy a few people by posting a few MJ jokes online, but then that’s par for the course. He was a very strange person and although there is a tendency to elevate someone to a pedestal because their death is so recent, this was a person with a lot of unsavoury aspects to his life.
The only celebrity I can remember dying in very unexpected circumstances like this was Princess Diana, but that was 1997 and there was no widespread use of social networks at the time – that was very much an environment in which the end consumer of news could do nothing except listen or watch what was being broadcast by the mainstream media channels. The death of Michael Jackson could be a watershed moment for networks like Twitter – news will never be the same again.