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Learning Information Handling Lessons From Celebrity Tragedy

In the space of a week and a half the world has lost some major celebrities, with Billy Mays, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, and Michael Jackson all passing away. Although each passing is tragic, it is the sudden death of Michael Jackson that has had the most effect on the online world, though there are reports that the deaths of the others have also led to online scam attempts.

Jackson's unexpected death demonstrates the power that "non-reputable sources" can have in being able to break and follow important news that is normally ignored until a more "reputable" source picks it up. The Internet may make it possible for anyone to have a voice, but it also means that carrying authority and reputation with that voice still takes time and effort. Michael Jackson's passing was first identified and reported on by TMZ, however the "reputable" news agencies and sources were much slower to pick up the story and run with it. One of the primary reasons why is that they had a much stronger reputation and weight of authority to risk running with a potentially inaccurate story, especially one that could be damaging if it was inaccurate. When everyone on the Internet is able to go and visit the originating source site, then the decision to delay the coverage of his death can result in lower overall readership of their particular coverage of the story.

Savvy online users and the skeptical will still try to get independent validation of the breaking story, something that came with time even though many of the early 'reputable' stories were derived almost exclusively from TMZ material. This sudden rush of Internet users seeking out independent validation in a very narrow timeframe led to some interesting side effects for Google and major news sites. Google's side effect was that the massive wave of traffic was initially identified as an attack and so accurate information was withheld for a short period while Google's defences were activated to deal with the significant but legitimate traffic flow.

Twitter was another service which found itself struggling to cope with the increased traffic that came as a result of Jackson's death. Various elements and features of the service were temporarily disabled to allow it to carry the messages being created by its users. Reportedly this was in the vicinity of 66,000 messages per hour, but that figure seems extremely low. If the service is going to struggle on 1,100 messages per minute, then it needs to be re-engineered to be able to carry more capacity if it is going to have wider appeal and usefulness.

Sites that were reliant upon third party advertising hosting found that serving the external ads was causing bottlenecks when serving up news reports, so much so that it made the overall sites seem unresponsive, despite the site itself still being responsive and fully functional.

Not only were mainstream "reputable" media sites and sources scooped by a non-traditional source and means, but there are questions about the appropriateness of media organisations self-censoring material that would normally be published.

When that material is suppressed because it pertains to a reporter that they employ it leads to accusations of double standards from external observers.

Not only was news of the reporter's kidnapping suppressed from traditional media sources, but an active and successful campaign was led to keep the information suppressed from Wikipedia, where the reporter already had a page describing their life and employment. Critics of Wikipedia have seized on this as a clear example of how Wikipedia is not the neutral, freely-editable source of information it claims to be. Political and commercial interests can trump the efforts of contributors to improve and enhance the usefulness and accuracy of the site.

Even though each of the situations described above took place recently, it isn't quite yet the case where people can claim that "The Emperor has no clothes", but it is beginning to look that way. How each situation came about and was resolved should provide lessons to the companies and organisations involved to help them provide better results the next time something similar takes place or else they will find themselves with no clothes.

2 July 2009

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