How many people does it take to break the Internet? On June 25, we found out it’s just one — if that one is Michael Jackson.
The biggest showbiz story of the year saw the troubled star take a good slice of the Internet with him, as the ripples caused by the news of his death swept around the globe. “Between approximately 2:40 p.m. PDT and 3:15 p.m. PDT today, some Google News users experienced difficulty accessing search results for queries related to Michael Jackson,” a Google spokesman told CNET, which also reported that Google News users complained that the service was inaccessible for a time. At its peak, Google Trends rated the Jackson story as “volcanic.” As sites fell, users raced to other sites: TechCrunch reported that TMZ, which broke the story, had several outages; users then switched to Perez Hilton’s blog, which also struggled to deal with the requests it received. CNN reported a fivefold rise in traffic and visitors in just over an hour, receiving 20 million page views in the hour the story broke. Twitter crashed as users saw multiple “fail whales” — the illustrations the site uses as error messages — user FoieGrasie posting, “Irony: The protesters in Iran using twitter as com are unable to get online because of all the posts of ‘Michael Jackson RIP.’ Well done.” The site’s status blog said that Twitter had had to temporarily disable its search results, saved searches and trend topics. Wikipedia saw a flurry of activity, with close to 500 edits made to Jackson’s entry in less than 24 hours. CNET reported that by 3:15pm PDT, Wikipedia seemed to be “temporarily overloaded.”
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The LA Times, the first news organization to confirm Jackson’s death, suffered outages. The site also reported that AOL’s instant messenger service had been hit, quoting an AOL statement that said, “AIM was down for approximately 40 minutes this afternoon.” The statement said, “Today was a seminal moment in Internet history. We’ve never seen anything like it in terms of scope or depth.” By Friday morning, news sites seemed to be coping with traffic but Jackson fan site mjfanclub.net was still performing sluggishly. Mashable.com reported that tributes to, and remarks upon, Michael Jackson’s death were responsible for 30 percent of tweets. As with any breaking piece of news on the Web, the reports of Jackson’s death sparked something of a feeding frenzy — and with that came rumor that dragged in other celebrities completely unconnected to the King of Pop’s death. One Wikipedia prankster wrote that Jackson had been “savagely murdered” by his brother Tito, who had strangled him “with a microphone cord.” Soon rumors spread online that movie star Jeff Goldblum had fallen from the Kauri Cliffs in New Zealand while filming his latest movie. On several search engines, “Jeff Goldblum” soon became the only non-Jackson-related term to crop up in the top 10. The rumors forced Goldblum’s publicist to issue a statement to media outlets, saying: “Reports that Jeff Goldblum has passed away are completely untrue. He is fine and in Los Angeles.” At the same time Harrison Ford was also rumored to have fallen from a yacht off the south of France. Web site snopes.com, which shoots down rumors, gossip and urban legends — and how they originated — said the likely culprit was a Web site which allows users to input celebrity names — and then inserts them into fake templated stories (a further variant has stars dying in a plane crash). In a sense the feeding frenzy was understandable — Jackson’s death, coming only hours after that of 1970s icon Farah Fawcett, left many Web users, shocked by the news of Jackson’s death, asking what would happen next. In this febrile climate any rumor runs the risk of being seized on, believed and treated with more credulity than usual. The need of the professional media to be first with the news — many did for a short time report the Goldblum rumor as fact — adds further veracity. And, of course, the whole process is speeded up by the Web. There is also, of course, the old adage that celebrities die in threes, with the deaths of Gianni Versace, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa in 1997 frequently held up as an example of this.
But while Diana and Teresa passed away with seven days of each other in August and September, Versace was killed in early July. Their deaths were most keenly mourned by the same broad sections of the public — and hence were inextricably interlinked. The Web can link disseminate news — but like any form of communication it can also help us create what we expect to see next.