In an instant, the world told itself of his death

Posted: June 27, 2009

The Web was everywhere in the story of Michael Jackson's passing.

From TMZ.com, a celebrity gossip site that broke the news, to Amazon.com, where Jackson CDs sold out within minutes, the death brought front and center how the Web has transformed the way people get information and act on it.

Just as mourners for Princess Diana placed flowers at the gate of Buckingham Palace in 1997, Web users sent out tweets, instant messages, Facebook posts, and memorial playlists.

It was a global outpouring of sorrow ("This is so sad! I feel for his kids" - FaithF on TheInsider.com), loss ("We lost a great entertainer and pop icon" - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Twitter), and memories ("I was lucky enough to see his electrifying performance in Mumbai in 1996" - Allen Machado, Mumbai, India, on BBC).

Web traffic was so huge that Google thought it was under attack, the entry for "Michael Jackson" on Wikipedia crashed, and access to CBS, NBC, and Yahoo News ground almost to a halt. It was, said the staff at TMZ, the biggest day for Internet traffic since President Obama's inauguration.

And TMZ played a large role at the outset. On Thursday, the site, better known for embarrassing photos and "dish" than hard reportage, beat everyone. The 911 call from Jackson's home went out around noon Los Angeles time; TMZ reported the cardiac arrest within an hour. Jackson was declared dead at the UCLA Medical Center at 5:26 p.m. Philadelphia time; TMZ announced his death at 5:44, seven minutes before the Los Angeles Times, which waited for confirmation from "city and law enforcement sources."

And millions trusted TMZ enough to relay the news. With astonishing rapidity, they spread the story far and wide via "alternative" sources like Facebook and Twitter well before the mainstream media could confirm it.

Susan Jacobson, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, said TMZ users were right to trust the site.

"TMZ is kind of like a trade magazine," Jacobson says, "so it's not surprising they scooped the others. They're in there working constantly with publicists, artists, and contacts in hospitals and the police department."

Jackson-related posts then carpet-bombed the Web.

The Instant Messaging feature at AOL crashed for 40 minutes, as thousands sought to tell the news directly to thousands of others. Even TMZ itself crashed for a while. Google turned away Jackson queries with this message: "We're sorry . . . but your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application. . . . We can't process your request right now."

Keynote Systems, which tracks Web traffic, said the average time taken to access a news site on the Web went from four to nine seconds Thursday night. Twitter slowed to a crawl, as Jackson-related posts climbed to more than 100,000 an hour.

The traffic continued yesterday, as millions tracked fresh news, shared emotions, mourned - and bought stuff.

Followers of TMZ on Twitter instantly read of the autopsy; release of the 911 call; rumors of heavy Demerol use by Jackson, possibly related to his death; and the search for and location of Conrad Robert Murray, Jackson's personal physician, reportedly present when the singer went into cardiac arrest.

On music sites such as Imeem and Last.fm, Jackson requests dominated. Between 6 and 8 p.m. Thursday, Last.fm users requested 42,000 Jackson tunes.

On Amazon.com, grief and longing for Jackson's music crystallized into sales. According to Bill Carr, Amazon's vice president of music and video, within minutes of the death announcement the Web site had sold out of all CDs by Jackson and the Jackson 5. By day's end Thursday, 60 percent of all CD orders on Amazon were for Jackson music. Carr said he'd "never seen anything like this."

By yesterday afternoon, 18 of Amazon's 20 music bestsellers were by Jackson, with the 25th anniversary edition of Thriller leading. Jackson tunes led all downloadable mp3 tracks. Carr added that most Jackson DVDs, including the 1978 film The Wiz, were out of stock.

Barnes & Noble's Web site sold out of all Jackson music, video and books, according to chief merchandising officer Jaime Carey. All the Web site's best-selling CDs were Jackson titles. (Jackson albums sold out at many stores as well.)

"We saw something similar when Pavarotti and Sinatra passed, but from the initial read on this, it seems to be a faster rush," Borders spokeswoman Mary Davis said.

By Friday, Main Street Music in Manayunk had sold out of two shipments of Jackson solo CDs and all Jackson 5 discs as well. The last Jackson disc in the store - The Ultimate Jackson 5 - was bought midafternoon by 76ers alum Maurice Cheeks, a regular customer. Owner Pat Feeney said he was calling distributors to restock Jackson titles, as he sees no end in sight to consumer demand.

Yesterday, nine of the Top 10 downloadable albums on iTunes were by Jackson, led by a compilation and Thriller.

Michael Jackson sold 750 million records in his heyday, yet he reportedly died $400 million in debt. His death spurred millions to revel in his memory, and to drive his commercial traffic to heights not seen since he moonwalked for the world.

The Internet helped turn that world into a village mourning a celebrated resident, one whose life and work had helped build that village.

Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane.

Inquirer staff writer Michael Klein contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.

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