Among the changes social media has made in the way we find and consume information, perhaps the most peculiar is Twitter's role in how we deal with death.
Celebrity death is an inherently social event. But it's also a news beat that, like it or not, Twitter owns these days. This has been apparent for some time to the scores of journalists who live and breathe on the social network, but it's quickly becoming the norm for everyday internet users too — not just place to find out what happened, but a place to stake your own claim in the collective mourning experience.
Collective mourning via media is nothing new. For those alive to remember it, Walter Cronkite's special bulletin reporting JFK's death in 1963 one of the defining moments of a generation, and one that spawned a national outpouring of grief (and gave people a particular common experience to talk about). Television, most notably 24-hour cable news, remained the primary collective gathering point for decades; if you heard from a friend that a famous person had died, your next step was to try to find a TV.
Twitter's role as the death channel didn't become apparent until 2009, after it had been widely touted as useful tool for breaking news. Michael Jackson's untimely death was a tipping point.
Jackson's surprising passing was perhaps the first full-scale example of what we've come to expect online after the death of a celebrity or public figure. Within hours of TMZ's initial report, Twitter and Wikipedia reported service outages as users flooded the sites looking for new information. AOL Instant Messenger, which was in decline but still widely used, reported a 40-minute outage and issued a statement noting, "[T]oday was a seminal moment in Internet history. We've never seen anything like it in terms of scope or depth."
AIM will likely never see something like that again. Twitter, on the other hand, now sees it on a regular basis. On Twitter information not only travels faster — Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston's deaths were being widely discussed on Twitter minutes before they appeared on major news outlets — it allows anyone to stake their own claim in the conversation. It's also become a stage from which other celebrities and prominent can react quickly, eschewing tricky appearances on cable news for a quick and tidy condolence statement. Major news organizations are taking notice and tapping into the trend too, inverting an old relationship: While Twitter used to be a place to discuss other media's coverage of death, now that same media discusses what Twitter is saying.
The Wall Street Journal in particular has been experimenting with a new kind of "social obituary," a collection of tweets, links, and photos in a specially designed template that's optimized for sharing across networks like Facebook and Twitter. For Liz Heron, WSJ director of social media and engagement, the idea of a social obituary is a natural extension of an obvious trend. "This is our attempt to update obituaries for the social media age," she told BuzzFeed. "Death has really become a social media phenomenon and everybody has something to say about a figure that may have affected their lives."
While Heron expressed hesitation with the notion that Twitter is the primary outlet for public mourning and discussion during prominent deaths, she noted that the few social obits the paper has done (Margaret Thatcher and Roger Ebert) have performed markedly better on Twitter. "In both cases, Twitter referred the lion's share of the social traffic (about 88%) with Facebook a distant second (11 to 12%). Overall, the homepage was the biggest traffic driver for us, followed by social networks and dark social (email, IM, etc)," she wrote in an email.
As has been the case with most breaking events on Twitter, confusion, spam, and trolling have become staples during the deaths of a prominent figures. Though the network tends to stamp out unsubstantiated claims and untruths eventually, if not always quickly, celebrity deaths tend to become a spectacle of sorts on Twitter, one that many find unpalatable in the immediate aftermath of the news.
As journalists know, joining and a larger conversation during a breaking news event — even a death — can be both exhilarating and addictive. Twitter has just extended that uneasy feeling to the masses.