I don’t recall where I was when Buddy Holly died. But I’ll recall where I was when Michael Jackson died. I was on Twitter.
— One Twitterer by the name of toomarvelous

I will remember where I was when I heard the news about Michael Jackson because it came for me in an unexpected place in an unexpected way.

I was practicing on the putting green prior to a golf tournament when a playing partner, a prominent orthopedic surgeon, received an alert from his Medscape professional network on the Blackberry that never leaves his side. “Michael Jackson is apparently dead,” he announced. “My colleagues are already speculating about what may have killed him. I’ll know more soon.face-of-news

He texted two messages on his Blackberry, clipped the phone to his golf bag, then wrapped his million-dollar hands around the grip of a Scotty Cameron putter. Word about Jackson’s death circulated around the golf course faster than news of free drinks after a hole-in-one.

There was no rush to the clubhouse to see what the cable news channels were reporting. In fact, the networks weren’t reporting anything about Mr. Jackson’s death. That wouldn’t come for almost an hour. Rather, golfers pulled smartphones from their bags to call friends or colleagues, search for news alerts, or tweet a message to followers on Twitter. While they noticed that the broadband service was a bit slower than usual, they spread the word quickly and efficiency through email.

Not long ago, using these devices on the practice green would have been regarded as violations of etiquette in the hushed and polite environment of a golf club. But we should no longer be surprised by how and where people are informed about news these days. There is no longer such a thing as “an unexpected place” or “an unexpected way” or acceptable behavior for accessing news and information. The expectation now is that we know about it as soon as it happens wherever we happen to be. News spreads instantaneously, sometimes out of control, through personal news networks on the ubiquitous information devices that almost everyone has. Everyone is a node in the network that moves the story

An AP reporter told blogger Jeff Jarvis that she was riding on a bus when someone announced the news of Mr. Jackson’s death to the passengers. Everyone on the bus took out their smart phones and spread the news, she said. Everyone on the bus was a node, Jarvis observed, the bus the network.

It is not just the occasional mega story that resonates through the nodes and networks of the Web. “Twitter revolutions” broke out in Iran and Moldova in recent weeks. And thousands of unreported, small stories inform lives globally in the continual flow that occurs throughout our connected society.

You’d have to be a castaway on one of the few, remote islands not yet wired with broadband service to miss the story that has eclipsed all others on the Internet. At about 6 p.m. Thursday, June 25, about a half hour after TMZ.com reported Mr. Jackson’s death, traffic on news Web sites clocked in at an astounding 4.2 million visitors a minute, according to the Akamai, a company that maximizes the performance of leading sites.

Most news sites loaded slowly. S0me entertainment sites did not load at all. Even Google had trouble keeping up. Between 5:40 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. — before most major news organizations verified and reported Mr. Jackson’s death on their Internet sites and television broadcasts — visitors to Google News experienced difficulty accessing search results.

AIM, the instant messaging service operated by AOL, collapsed for about 40 minutes amid the attention of the Jackson story. The company called the day “a seminal moment in Internet history.” It said: “We’ve never seen anything like it in terms of scope or depth.”

Historically, celebrity news prompts a worldwide outpouring with several key consumer behaviors — searching, sharing and reacting to the news followed by online tributes. This has become the cultural way to mourn celebrities: catharsis by Internet. The death of Princess Diana was the first notable example.

On Twitter, thousands posted short messages about Mr. Jackson expressing disbelief, grief and remembrances. The number of tweets and retweets caused the site to load more slowly than usual as well as crash multiple times. “We saw more than double the normal tweets per second the moment the news broke,” said Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s co-founders.

By some estimates, references to Mr. Jackson accounted for about 25 per cent of all traffic on the Internet on the day of his death, exceeding the level of reporting on the violent aftermath of elections in Iran. Now, a study by the Pew Research Center has determined that coverage of Mr. Jackson’s death in the last week accounted for an astonishing 60% of all news coverage in the United States.

Many observers believe this represents another turning point for the Web, a time when there was far more activity on the Web’s social networks than there was on traditional news outlets. As such, the numbers again demonstrate the extent to which news has become a cultural experience spread by and through social media.

Traditional media organizations now play a secondary, reactive role in the arc of stories in the new culture of news. But that role is significant. Pew’s News Interest Index conducted June 26-29 shows the public closely tracked the Jackson story on news outlets last week, though nearly two-in-three Americans say news organizations gave too much coverage to the story. Thirty percent said they followed Jackson stories very closely. A similar share (31%) say this was the story they followed more closely than any other

While all media platforms benefited from interest in Mr. Jackson’s death and career, traditional outlets fueled interest with retrospectives produced from rich video and news archives documenting a life captured in media. CNN and other cable networks reported higher than usual ratings, while the major television networks ran – and continue to run — prime time specials on the pop icon that garnered audiences of 5.5 million to 7.6 million viewers.

But compare that to the 4.2 million users a minute on the Internet at the peak of the story. While other media may have achieved one-time surges in viewership or readership, the Jackson story landed like an atomic bomb on the Internet and its social networks. The energy spread globally throughout the Web with content exploding into countless millions of atoms, each taking on a life of their own.

The story also validated the “long tail” theory of economics, which holds that information may have greater residual value in the long term than it has during its short-term peak. Word about Mr. Jackson’s death ignited a surge in music sales with the singer dominating iTunes rankings with seven sets, most more than a decade old, in the top 10.

Turning point or tipping point? We suggest it is more of the latter. While the numbers are unprecedented, the extent of Internet usage during the Jackson story is an abstraction of much larger forces that had been set in motion years earlier with the proliferation of personal, digital devices and the growth of digital, social networks enabled by these devices.

The sociology of this moment is far more significant than either technology or traffic. The activities of news and information consumers are now inextricably intertwined with the social behaviors of a culture that values real-time access, contributions, sharing and communicating through pervasive devices that are always on in almost everywhere. These behaviors are at the leading edge of change in communication as we know it.

This is We Media: the powerful force that now dominates how we know. We forecast the movement in 2002 with three defining principles:

1. The Digital Everything: All news and information will at some point need to be digital and mobile.

2. The Emergence of Social Networks: Informal networks or communities of people exchanging news, information and conversation will emerge as the principal means of learning and discovery. These networks will eclipse traditional, informed intermediaries and gatekeepers as the most-trusted trusted sources of information.

3. The Rise of the Individual. Individuals will exert unprecedented power. They will contribute to and participate in the creation of portable, immediate and continuously updated news, entertainment and information.

Our headline now, as it was then, is that ordinary citizens will set the agenda for news and information. Each of the We Media principles has been borne out repeatedly over the past seven years.

For news organizations, one turning point occurred in 2007 at Virginia Tech when students trapped in classrooms and dorms used a new service called Twitter to describe the horror and confusion of shootings around them.

“What we experienced about the horrific events in Blacksburg owes to a generation connected emotionally and technologically to its media,” we wrote in our report on media and the shootings at that time. “Everything you thought you knew about media has changed.”

Now we know it has changed again.

The significant learning is that We Media now reflects a dominant behavior for knowing on our society. Citizens rely first on the communications networks they take with them to access, share and contribute to the story, whatever the story may be. News today is social, a participatory activity.

That is a historic shift from an era when news was a function of a discrete institution built to gather, report, edit and distribute news. Today’s headlines about the exponential rise of digitally enabled networks and the fall of the curated news-enterprise are signs, social and economic, of the shift.

The Jackson Story legitimizes We Media as the principal, global connections network for news and information. The rush to social networks and online sources reflected well-documented preferences and consumption trends that validated our own research as well as that by Pew and many others. These preferences, now dominant, will only grow as more people connect throughout the world.

The shift creates an anomaly for news organizations. Just as the capacity and the authority of traditional news organizations to break and spread news declines, the need for traditional roles of accuracy, sense making, context, meaning and understanding are heightened.

We saw this in a surprising place: Wikipedia. Acting much like a traditional news organization would, editors at the online collaborative encyclopedia debated verifying Mr. Jackson’s death before allowing changes to his profile. Editors also fought with people making modifications to the profile before taking down the site to disallow the numerous reports of Mr. Jackson’s death. “Once again, he is not dead, just stop,” wrote one of the editors who deleted Jackson’s date of death.

Befitting his role in the culture, Mr. Jackson was among the first people to have an article on Wikipedia. It was created in Wikipedia’s first year, 2001, and has been edited more than 19,000 times, making it one of the most edited ever. In the course of only a few hours on June 25, there were 1.8 million visits to the Michael Jackson article, or about 1 percent of total Wikipedia traffic that entire day. On Friday, the total reached five million visits.

The arc of the Michael Jackson story demonstrates how journalists can play new roles in today’s news ecosystem. In addition to fulfilling tradition roles such as reporting, curating, vetting, adding context, correcting misinformation, they worked with social journalists to report on and distribute the contributions and comments of experts and everyday people. Piece by piece, the story comes together before our eyes, all in public.

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Dale Peskin

Dale Peskin

Dale is co-founder of We Media and of iFOCOS, the media think tank and futures lab.

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  • http://www.phillipreid.net Philip Reid

    What I think might be more interesting at this rapid pace of technological advances is to speculate what might come after the digital mobile. I reminisce about my father saying there was a new technology that would put newspapers out of business. He said this technology could transmit a printed page from one house or business to another. It was the fax machine! Now this machine is almost extinct. Mobile devices used the way you now mention will also be extinct in a very short time. They will have to become extinct in order to perpetuate the economy with something new and different to purchase. I am anxious to read more about it!

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