Rory Cellan-Jones

Jackson: Did the internet buckle?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 26 Jun 09, 15:55 GMT

So how big a web event was the death of Michael Jackson - and how did the internet cope with the strain?

There's a lot of hype around - and precious little hard information - but it's a fair bet that the global nature of his fame, and the sudden nature of his untimely death will have produced huge traffic around the world wide web to certain sites.

As Maggie Shiels reported earlier, the traffic was on such a scale that even Google News struggled to cope, and a number of sites - notably, TMZ which broke the story - were unavailable at times.

There are some statistics around - Hitwise tells me that Twitter had its biggest day ever yesterday, and it's virtually certain that the record will be broken again today. Websites like this one are seeing traffic far above normal levels, and our article on Michael Jackson's death could well end up as the most-read story in the history of the BBC News website by the end of the day.

But did the internet actually buckle? Well, there was some strain - but it seems to have come through well.

In the United States, a company called Keynote, which monitors internet performance, says popular news sites showed marked slowdowns for three hours from about 2230 BST: "The average speed for downloading news items doubled from less than four seconds to almost nine seconds," said Shawn White from Keynote. "During the same period, the average availability of sites dropped from almost 100% to 86%."

But guess what: in Europe overnight, there was no spike in internet traffic. Interoute, which operates Europe's largest fibre optic voice and data network, sent me graphs (see below) showing traffic through the three key internet exchanges in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and London. At all three exchanges, traffic was either around the same as normal overnight, or, in London's case, actually a little lower.

A week of internet traffic

So what's going on? Well for one thing, the kind of people who were online late at night may well have decided to leave their computers and turn on the television for the breaking news. Then there's the fact that much of the increasing traffic across the internet in recent years has been in the form of web video, whereas news of Michael Jackson's death was spread through less bandwidth-heavy social networking and news sites.

Jonathan Brown of Interoute told me: "The 140 characters in a Twitter message doesn't really take up a lot of internet traffic. When you have something like Barack Obama's inauguration - a continuous streaming video coming from one destination which everyone is going to - then you really see a big spike in traffic."

So individual sites may have struggled for a while to cope with a big surge in traffic. But an internet which is gradually adapting to handle vast amounts of video did not come close to buckling.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Perhaps any male over 40 devoted their 10 seconds of daily empathy to Farah Fawcett.

  • Comment number 3.

    My guess is that the night owls (like myself) that read/heard the news as it broke (around 10.45pm Thursday) will have then left messages (status updates) on Facebook etc, Twittered etc, rang friends and then many will also have then texted the news to sleeping friends. I suspect the mobile networks will have seen a surge last night.

    Those that only found out when they woke on Friday morning wouldnt have been able to avoid it once they tuned in to TV, radio or went to a web news site such as this.

    Judging from the volume of comments on the MJ thread in HYS there is intense interest in this story (most people have at least heard of MJ and will have an opinion on him) and I suspect that video sites (and ISPs) are now having to cope with large numbers of hits on MJ music videos.

    Given the LAPD are now looking for MJs doctor (it looks as if the cardiac arrest may have been brought on by an overdose of painkillers) I suspect the interest in this story will continue to reamain high.

    But a story that could break the Internet? Given so many use the Internet so heavily now on a daily basis, I doubt that any story could really overload it to that extent; could it?

  • Comment number 4.

    Against the background noise of file sharing, bulk e-mail, and large video streaming, I don't think a little text news site browsing is going to make a huge dent in usage stats like the one above. Even if there was suddenly 100 times as much use on stuff like that, you wouldn't see the effect on your graph. But it _will_ have an awful lot of effect on the speed of those text news sites.

  • Comment number 5.

    I don't think Google News was overloaded, it was rather that it assumed certain search terms suddenly spiking so fast was some sort of spam attack rather than real search requests.

  • Comment number 6.

    As an advisor to, my sleep was interupted by the Editor as the sites servers had collapsed under the masses of people visiting the Jackson article. Luckily we managed to restore the site by morning.

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm not surprised because in the USA it was during the working day on the west coast and as people were arriving home from work on the east coast, so everyone checking the news at the same time, whilst most of the US population was awake.

    IN europe by contrast, countries on Central European time it was almost midnight before the news was announced and in the UK and Europe a sizeable proportion of the population would have been asleep.

    Had it have happened at say 10am PT then I suspect Britain Europe and the USA would have synchronised the dip...

    If anyone had called me to tell me, I would have lost a friend...

  • Comment number 8.

    Must we really have a blog about "how the internet coped" when x "celeb" dies?

    Michael Jackson has died, big deal. Plenty of people die every day.

    I really wish the BBC would stop feeding the cult of celebrity and do some proper reporting for a change.

    I bet another soldier died in Afghanistan today, how about a blog about how technology is failing them?

  • Comment number 9.

    Comment 8
    Sadly more people think that MJ's death maters more than that of a soldier in Afghanistan. Why? Because his music and celebrity placed him into every living room and nightclub. More people know of MJ. A lot of people like his music - but have very mixed up feelings about his well publicised troubled personal life. And the media will milk that interest for all its worth.
    What chance does a serving soldier have against that? The only people that really know of him are his mates, family and lover[s].

    Fair? No. But its how history goes. The life and death of a peasant in a field or a front-line infantryman matters less than the life and death of an emperor, king, pope, general, courtesan or troubadour.
    Celebrity is merely about how a society is organised to allow some individuals to become famous and bestows wealth on them whilst consigning the majority of others to anonymity. Every past society has done the same.

    As Kipling wrote about his archetypical soldier, Thomas Atkins: "No thank you we don't want food, sir; but couldn't you take an' write A sort-of 'to be continued' and 'see next page' o' the fight? We think that someone has blundered, and couldn't you tell 'em how? You thought we was heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now."

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    Interesting (but sadly) incorrect analysis. Sorry Rory, not a personal dig but the data you're posting here is (as you say) from an Internet peering exchange (the biggest). The problem is most ISPs and content providers have private peerings among themselves because LINX and others (such as PARIX, DECIX) charge for throughput. So if I'm viewing the BBC over my ADSL the chances are (especially if I'm in the UK) I'll go direct from my ISP to BBC's network. You guys run one of the most "peered" ASes out there (ask your network guys) and no doubt most of the major news/content providers do the same so LINX is avoided totally and everyone saves money. (Plus performance over LINX is far less than optimal as I'm sure your network guys will allude to).

    So, what you really want to see is not the public peer points data which won't have borne the brunt but the private peering throughput which will probably prove a point (either that sites/networks were under excessive strain or not). Just walk down the hall and talk to your own network guys.


  • Comment number 14.

    Yes. After hearing the demise of King of Pop,Mr.Micahel Jackson,first i came to know from Google,website,then i switched on to BBC Channels.
    I have received all notes about this pop king,fans thronged to his house,world wide tributes to him,my writings of this great music legend,dancer in BBC had created a very big khudus to our BBC website,TV,Radio channels.
    That day, my friends,some music lovers were not able to surf the networks,due to over traffic,very slow connectvity for this particular happenings.
    BBC had done a marvallous jobs on that day.
    All credit goes to BBC,team,reporters,news readers,live specialists,writers,commentators.

  • Comment number 15.

    I was online from about 11pm until 3am when the Mj news broke. Overall, I noticed that sites were slow, but the only site i received problems from was Livejournal - i went to make a post and the site was unavailable - it just wouldnt work and did not even display an error. After a while it said it was undergoing emergency maintainence with very basic text based message, although I'm not sure if this was a co incidence or if was the MJ thing which broke it. I'm not sure that LJ is as big as it once was to the point where it would go over capacity...

    Twitter overall was fine for me, which surprised me because i get 'over capacity' messages on a normal day from them, let alone when something big happens.

  • Comment number 16.

    @ number 8: Stop complaining for the sake of complaining. This blog post isn't about Michael Jackson's passing, it's about how the internet copes with very large (or very popular, if you prefer) news stories and how the technology copes with them.

    There are, also, plenty of news stories which cover Afghanistan too. Like it or not, Michael Jackson's death was a story which was of great interest to a large number of people.

    If you're not interested, fine. Just don't read the article!

  • Comment number 17.

    At a guess, I'd say that it simply wasn't as big a story outside the USA. While they might have swamped some websites to find out / share grief, it doesn't look as if that happened so much everywhere else.
    Of course the time difference probably had some effect - as the story broke late at night, so almost no-one in the uk (unless they watched Newsnight) would have known.
    Plus, there's the american propensity for exaggeration: whenver they say "the world ... did something ", they really only mean the USA did it.

  • Comment number 18.

    I spent more time searching for Farrah's poster than bothering with Michael Jackson.


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