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Technology & Innovation

Fail Whale Threatens Jackson Tributes, Democracy

Malicious computer attacks act a lot like Michael Jackson fans. And in the digital age, both can have quite the ripple effect.

Since the King of Pop’s passing on Thursday night, the world has been flooded with tributes—glowing obits, radio stations churning out nothing but Jackson tunes and MTV playing the star’s almost-forgotten music videos. A celebrity’s death piques interest in their work, which sometimes can clog the machine. (I had Cool Hand Luke in my Netflix queue for months before the logjam created by Paul Newman’s death loosened up.)

The hubub that Jackson’s death churned up is perhaps the perfect tribute to his global hugeness. Twitter’s ominous Fail Whale made multiple appearances as too many tweets spread the news. TMZ, which broke the news, suffered several outages as well. 

But the funniest outage happened at Google News. Its system automatically identified the “volcanic” deluge of requests for Jackson searches as an attack by malicious software, believing only targeted malware could cause the bombardment. If you went to Google News on Thursday you were confronted by a “We’re Sorry” screen indicating your search looked like a computer virus attack.

It’s just further proof that a legion of fans are a powerful force. The outages were only temporary however. Even the death of one of the world’s most applauded pop icons couldn’t bring down the entire Internet, though he got closer than the rest of us. Hopefully Twitter, Google and their ilk will learn from this episode and be more prepared for the next ur-celebrity’s passing or, more importantly, computer attack. And we should remember there were more important online happenings than a icon’s passing this weekend. If, as John Hodgman suggests, the Iranian protests really are planned vis-a-vis the sleep schedules of software engineers, it would be quite a blow if a few million “RIP MJ” tweets derailed democracy.


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