Michael Jackson’s Death Shows the Web at Its Best. And Worst.

By  |  Friday, June 26, 2009 at 12:16 pm

The untimely and shocking death of Michael Jackson is proving to be another milestone moment for the Internet, confirming the medium’s ability to spread news quickly while at the same time steps still need to be taken to handle massive, unexpected spikes in traffic.

For many, including myself, the Internet–most likely Twitter or Facebook–was the first place they heard the news of Jackson being rushed to the hospital followed quickly by the news of his passing. To wit, Twitter reached a 5,000-tweet-per-minute rate on Jackson related items, while Facebook saw triple the traffic to its status updates. For Twitter, the rate of posts reached levels last seen around the historic US Presidential election, co-founder Biz Stone told he the LA Times. Even the Times itself saw record traffic, with nearly 2.3 million page views in an hour, which it says is more traffic than any single hour during its previous peak on Election Day.

In general, online news sites tracked by Akamai saw traffic jump 20% above average as the news broke.

This isn’t to say there weren’t problems. Traffic monitoring service Keynote said the availability index of popular news sites dropped from 100% to 86% beginning at 5:30 PM EST, with rates returning to normal levels around 9:15 PM EST.

TMZ.com, one of the first to report the news, was knocked offline briefly after a flurry of traffic. Poor AOL saw its Instant Messenger service go down for around 40 minutes during the peak of the news. The company says they had a planned software update in process, which was undermined by the news. Twitter had its share of “Fail Whale” errors, making it frustrating for users to get access to the site and post updates. Not surprising, given the site frequently pops up such news under normal circumstances, never mind one of the biggest breaking news stories of the year.

Even Google News and Microsoft’s new Bing didn’t fare well with the King of Pop’s death. Search Engine Journal reported that by 6:20 P.M. EST, Google only had one headline in its Universal Search Onebox, while Microsoft’s Bing failed miserably at handling the coverage.

Many online supporters like to pooh-pooh mainstream media for their slower reactions to breaking stories like the Jackson death news. Sure, the news first broke online and spread quickly, but as more people turned online for news, the weight slowed the system. For all their faults, TV stations do not have this problem. They’re already built to scale – when more people tune in, the better they do. I didn’t seen any “Page Not Available” errors when I turned on CNN as confirmation started to trickle in that Jackson was indeed dead. Can’t say the same about the Web sites and services.


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4 Comments For This Post

  1. Adam Says:

    The vast majority of Twitter traffic that brought the system down were those simply informing friends of what had happened. To get the details, one needed to go to a TV station or a real news Web site.

    But really, once the news was out that he had passed, what’s the rush to find out the details a minute ahead of someone else? Who cares? Why not skip the hysteria of the coverage and wait for the newspaper.


  2. Marc Says:

    I agree with Adam. Twitter is just gossip and rumor. TV stations have a duty to check out the fact before publicizing them. I don’t care if someone on Twitter finds out 10 minutes before me, because twitter is no different from someone standing in the middle of a bar or club, and announcing something. Vicious rumors that turned out to be true this time, but what wont get reported is the times they don’t.
    I am so fed up with Twitter hype. The BBC even had a report today about Iran that said protesters had used “twitter, email and the web” – Twitter *IS* the web for crying out loud!

  3. william Says:

    We have another example of the general public’s pathetic obsession with the lives of celebrities. And we have technology that allows the public to take that to a whole new level. If this is the “best” of the web, it is pretty darn worthless!

  4. Kenneth Says:

    Nice post!

    I don’t think we can fault Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook for how people use them. As technologies, they do precisely what they’re supposed to do: they let us share information and stay in touch with one another.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed by some people in their Tweets and Facebook updates. But I’d much rather put up with the gibberish and noises they bring, because these technologies give all of us a fair chance at being heard. The alternative is for most of us to be shut out from public discourse.

    It seems to me, Michael Jackson embodied both the best and the worst of celebrity.

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