We seem to have hit a rough patch for celebrity deaths this past week: Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and just yesterday, pitchman Billy Mays. The demise of Michael Jackson in particular captured worldwide interest and led to all sorts of tributes and memorials, from BET to the cover of every major newspaper.
As is now the case with any breaking story with such magnitude of human interest, online usage spiked as people sought to learn what happened as it happened: for a short while, Twitter actually shut down and Google returned error messages for searches related to “Michael Jackson,” assuming that the volume of inquiries indicated some sort of automated attack on its servers. For one hour last Thursday night, over one of every five tweets referenced Michael Jackson.
The interval between when TMZ announced his death and when more reputable outlets followed suit will provide fodder for journalists to debate for years; what caught my attention–courtesy of our ever aware planner Lance Hill–was the corresponding rumor that Jeff Goldblum had also died. Oddly, Mr. Goldblum seems to be a more modern version of Abe Vigoda: rumors of his death first popped up ten years ago. If you check the chart at left, courtesy of the Twitter trend monitoring service Twist, both Goldblum and Harrison Ford shared temporary obituaries late last week. The ever-useful rumor-quashing site Snopes reports that these rumors originate via an automated prank; some ‘comedy’ websites encourage you to enter a celebrity’s name into a ‘fake news generator’ and then spread the story–similar rumors spread a few years ago about both Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks. And apparently these fake story generators favor Hollywood deaths that involve the ‘victim’ falling off a mountain during a location shoot in New Zealand. Go figure…
Social Media provide untold value–not only to enable us to connect more frequently in our time-starved culture, but also to provide a first-person outlet for critical news as it breaks. The recent coverage of the massive post-election protests on the streets of Iran would have been far less-comprehensive without the first-person details passed along via Twitter. But as author and social media commentator Clay Shirky points out, having this vast distribution network accessible to everyone makes it all but impossible to define what constitutes a ‘journalist’ anymore. Further, without being bound to the principles–and legal ramifications–of traditional journalism, false stories spread much further, much faster. On the upside, ‘wiki’ principles hold true in these cases as well; the majority of social media users want to know the truth and will quickly rise up to correct erroneous stories as they find them.
It takes a village indeed. And online, that village is very, very large. And loud. And occasionally wrong. But inevitably corrected.