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Texts and tweets spread news about Jackson

"Michael Jackson has just died," the woman said  upon boarding a Manhattan bus, moments after the news broke. Nearly every passenger reached for a Blackberry, a cell phone, whatever device was at hand.
Image: Michael Jackson
Fans of Michael Jackson pass by his star to pay their respects on the Walk of Fame on June 26 in Los Angeles. John Moore / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

"Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Jackson has just died," the woman called out breathlessly upon boarding a Manhattan bus, moments after the news had broken. Not a word was spoken in response. But nearly every passenger reached for a BlackBerry, a cell phone, whatever device was at hand.

"People are already texting about it, putting it up on Facebook, remembering his greatest moments," noted Delmar Dualeh, sitting in the back. At 17, he confessed, the news didn't really move him emotionally. He was too young to recall the 50-year-old entertainer in his prime. But he was fully engaged in the cultural moment. He hurried the conversation along so he could get back to texting.

In Iran, people speak of a Twitter uprising. Was this the first major Twitter celebrity death? Because it wasn't just how many people first learned of Jackson's demise but what they did once they found out.

"Once you knew the news, there wasn't so much more to know — the rest is all comment," said media critic Jeff Jarvis. So, he said, maybe you'd go to your friends instead of the news: "You might care more what your friends say than some analyst."

Jarvis himself tweeted the moment he heard of the death: He noted that Iran's spiritual leader should be grateful to Jackson because the story wiped Iran off the day's news agenda.

"That was re-tweeted a lot," Jarvis said.

The company said news of Jackson's death generated the most tweets per second since Barack Obama was elected president, and more than twice the normal tweets per second from the moment the story broke.

Plain old texting, Dualeh's choice, had its largest spike on AT&T'S network in history. Nearly 65,000 texts per second were sent, the company said — more than 60 percent over normal volume.

And on Facebook, "sharing of all types went up — including wall posts, comments, notes, posted links," wrote spokeswoman Jaime Schopflin in an e-mail. "Status updates in particular saw an increase of more than three times the amount than usual."

Some posters were cynical, but many more were grief-stricken, like Jackson fan Scott Friedstein, an administrative assistant who lives in Brooklyn.

"There will never be another like him, ever," Friedstein wrote. "The word 'superstar' is tossed around a lot, but no one personified the term, lived and breathed it, and delivered like he did. To all the people who liked Michael Jackson when it wasn't cool to ... I feel for you."

Facebook said there were no internal reports of the site slowing from too much traffic. But there were slowdowns or outages on other sites. Google said the spike in searches related to Jackson was so big that Google News initially mistook it for an automated attack.

Wikipedia, meanwhile, had trouble with traffic, with people getting intermittent error messages, said Jimmy Wales, founder of the online encyclopedia, in a telephone interview. He also described an online debate between users and regular editors over whether Jackson's death should be added to his entry before the news was officially confirmed.

Finally, editors intervened and prevented entries about Jackson to be modified for about six hours, Wales said.

Experiencing slowdowns were the Web sites of ABC, AOL, the Los Angeles Times and CBS, according to Keynote Systems, an Internet monitoring service. Also experiencing an impact were, NBC and Yahoo! News.

(Msnbc is a Microsoft Corp.-NBC Universal joint venture.)

The initial news of Jackson's death broke on at 5:20 p.m. The Los Angeles Times and then The Associated Press confirmed the death just before 6:30 p.m. EDT, and networks then led their broadcasts with the news.

TMZ quoted a source inside the hospital, and turned out to be right. But there were plenty of false reports circulating across the Web that mainstream news organizations had to chase: Rumors of actor Jeff Goldblum falling off a cliff, Harrison Ford falling off a yacht and, on Friday, George Clooney in a plane crash.

Balancing two sides
Another challenge the mainstream media faced was presenting both sides of Jackson himself, and balancing the polarities of his story. On the one hand, there was ample video evidence of the extraordinarily gifted young man who took the world by storm, moon-walking on the Apollo Theater stage, or dancing hypnotically in the groundbreaking "Thriller" video.

On the other, there was the pale, older man, dangling his baby off a hotel balcony, or seen in video from his trial on charges of child molestation. So which Jackson to show?

"There was a duality to Michael Jackson that you had to deal with," said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of "48 Hours" and CBS specials. "The man died with a legacy of shame. The news had to be a combined sentence."

To open the one-hour special she produced, anchored by Harry Smith, Zirinsky chose four words that she felt conveyed the dichotomy: "A prodigy. A sensation. The controversy. The tragedy."

The same duality was evident on NBC's "Today" show, where one moment Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira were describing how Jackson was the most compelling entertainer they had ever seen.

Later, writer Maureen Orth, a guest on the show, told Lauer that Jackson had ruined the lives of families and children, and she cast doubt on the justice of his acquittal.

"But I did love his music," Orth added.

"Today" executive producer Jim Bell acknowledged it was a challenge to balance the two sides. "But that was one of the main reasons he was such a compelling figure," Bell said. "Otherwise, I don't know that his death would have been such a momentous occasion."

The fact that the news broke on a celebrity Web site and spread like wildfire across the social networking sites is a noteworthy change in how celebrity deaths get reported, Bell said. But he added that the mainstream media is becoming more nimble as a result.

And, Bell added, with a huge media event such as Jackson's death, the audience is going to increase everywhere, including network TV. "There's going to be a lot of eyeballs in both new and traditional media," Bell said. "It's not a zero-sum game."

Maybe not, but Friedstein, the Brooklyn man, went home Thursday night and logged onto Facebook right away. He didn't turn on the TV — he doesn't even have one.

"I just wanted to see how other people were feeling," he said later by telephone. "This was shattering, surreal even. It's my generation's version of Elvis dying."