Michael Jackson changed pop music forever - his knockout "Thriller" wowed crowds and sold records at a record pace. Despite his fall from grace, he was a musician ahead of his time, combining showmanship and lyrics for a dynamic entertainment event.
It's probably no surprise that at his death a new cultural phenomenon vaulted into mainstream consciousness: the social networking site Twitter. Twitter is for the super-addicted, information-aholic who loves to be the first to know and the first to tell. Twitter is like the rhyming word fritter - those deep-fried pastry treats that are often tempting, taste great, fill the stomach but have little if any nutritional value. Twitter is fast and first and has a place, but is no replacement for balanced, thoughtful, elegant prose. Stomachs filled with fritters have no room for vegetables, and lives filled with Twitter may have no time for substance.
For several hours after Jackson's death fans overwhelmed Twitter and many other sites on the Internet. Twitter and Google both had so many posts, users were getting error messages shortly after the news broke. Yahoo set a record for unique visitors in a single day with 16.4 million visitors and Jackson was the most highly-visited story in its history. CNN reported a 500 percent increase with 20 million page views in the hours following the death.
Fans, celebrities and reporters used all kinds of electronic transmissions, but Twitter's first messages flew before Jackson even reached the hospital.
Twitter.com has been around a little over one year. A user's video on the site promotes Twitter as a faster way for friends, family and colleagues to stay in touch. It's meant to keep track of the little comings and goings in each other's lives as they occur. Twitter posts or "Tweets" can be a maximum of 140 characters in length -- which is very short message. This one paragraph is 326 characters.
No doubt the first and most consistent users to embrace Twitter are those born to a world with cell phones, PDAs and Wi-Fi connections everywhere. They're tuned in, plugged in and adept at multi-tasking.
Twitter messages often act as a form of electronic doodling, a good way for people to kill time in a long meeting, a long line or a long commute. What puzzles non-users is why anyone would want to hear such regular briefings about anyone else's comings and goings. The time drain required to keep up with a number of friends digitally seems overwhelming.
Twitter posts are not great journalism, not great literature, and often not even accurate; instead they can become a way to spread bad information quickly. In the hours following Jackson's death, rumors about other celebrity deaths were rampant and wrong. Unnamed, unverified information is no substitute for credible sites and sources where facts are double checked before dissemination.
If journalism is the first draft of history, Tweets are the first sentence of the draft, but sometimes they raw urgency to those short posts is compelling. Such is the case with news from protestors in Iran who have used Twitter and their cell phones to get news out of the heavily censored country. At the height of the protest, the State Department asked Twitter not to conduct scheduled maintenance so as not to interrupt the flow of information.
A few real-time tweets from Iran on Thursday, July 2: "Six people were hanged in Tehran's Evin prison today." and "Shops are closed earlier, people cannot (=are afraid) to leave home at night, it is really like an un-announced martial law."
Those posts, however, are mixed in with tidbits such as "German free dating site helping Germany single check it out." or "Make $200 a day on Twitter. Find out here!"
The posts change constantly, so it's like reading billboards in a fast-moving car, where all that's left is a vague impression of thousands of messages that have flown by on the side of the road and have done nothing more than oddly entertain during passing hours.
As Michael Jackson proved, however, entertainment is powerful. Overlooking Twitter and other social networking sites is probably like overlooking Thriller 25 years ago. Like fritters they should not comprise a steady diet, but the sites have a place; they are not going away, and eventually most of us will have to catch on to keep up.