Dorothy Crenshaw July 9, 2009 | 12:08:51

Michael Jackson Makes Internet History

It’s ironic that Michael Jackson had planned a series of “comeback” concerts scheduled to begin shortly before his death, since no comeback could have matched the media storm surrounding his passing and subsequent memorial service. The service, which was televised, live-streamed, and followed closely by millions on social networking sites in real time, has been called the largest Web event in history.  This is an exaggeration – Barack Obama’s inauguration takes that title.

Yet, the memorial was an unprecedented multimedia event.  According to Nielsen, it was the third most discussed topic among social networking sites, accounting for more than 3 percent of all online conversation. For me, it was a slightly weird immersion into what we used to call media convergence, live and unfiltered.

I didn’t tune in until shortly before the end. This was a good thing, because it was overwhelming.  Sad, yes. But the real overwhelm was trying to follow the jerky live web video of the Staples Center memorial on CNN, while taking in the other live events set up at additional locations.  Then there was the Facebook comment stream on the right-hand side of my screen. (I’m not even going to start with the Twitter feed.)

The service itself lacked a consistent tone, which is not unusual, given the occasion  And any event where the Rev. Al Sharpton, Brooke Shields, and Usher share a stage is bound to be a study in contrasts. But it was the integration – or attempts at integration – of social media that made this experience different from other heavily covered events. The Facebook comments came at a lightning pace – over 6000 per minute on the CNN feed alone. The tenor of the conversation – if you could call it that – was fragmented, mercurial, and oddly exhausting. Many were grieving, others were cynical, a few were comic, most were banal. The overall effect was a little jarring for a memorial service, even one for the most eccentric of performers.

Nielsen’s Charles Buchwalter comments, “Even as recently as five years ago, the only choice for community was to gather around the TV screen with co-workers or friends for major events. Now, there are three screens to choose from and, as our research shows, online activity actually reinforces TV viewing. So when outlets like CNN integrate their coverage with Facebook or MSNBC leans heavily on Twitter it demonstrates the public’s growing integrated use of TV, the web, and mobile for getting, and at times reporting, the news.”

It’s true that any media outlet that didn’t incorporate social media in their coverage of the day seemed…well, out of touch. But, it also highlights the flipside of the social Web, its high noise-to-signal ratio, and the need to calibrate that social component to achieve real, seamless integration of it into the overall mix.  We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet. 

2 thoughts on “Michael Jackson Makes Internet History

  1. Although it seems like the integration of social media enables participation by more people in the event, it’s not at all clear to me that all this partipation is a good thing. I wonder if the ensuing chaos and cacophony of voices really enhances the experience for anyone. With that many people talking, is anyone really listening?

  2. That’s one of the big social media issues, particularly with Twitter, where you don’t need mutual permission to follow someone. The answer, in part, is filtering, but normal filters don’t do the job when you have an extraordinary event like this.

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