The online outpouring in response to last week's passing of Elizabeth Taylor demonstrated not only the kind of subjects bloggers can gravitate to, but how social media can serve as a kind of communal hearth, or in this case, a digital memorial service.
For the week of March 21-25, fully one-third (33%) of the news links on blogs were about Taylor's March 23 death at age 79, making it the No. 1 subject, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Bloggers were also attuned to the two big international crises last week, which were the No. 2 and No. 3 topics-the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan (25%) and the conflict in Libya, which now involves the U.S. military (18%).
High levels of interest in the passing of a Hollywood luminary are part of a trend that has been evident ever since PEJ began the New Media Index in January 2009. Bloggers like to reminisce about popular culture figures. Dom DeLuise, Patrick Swayze, and Leslie Nielsen-lesser celebrities than Taylor-all received significant attention after their deaths.
At 33% of the links, Taylor received more coverage on blogs than any other celebrity passing, including pop icon Michael Jackson who generated 27% of the links when he died in June 2009-although the fact that Jackson died later in the week (Thursday as opposed to Wednesday for Taylor) may have contributed to the smaller number.
Indeed, Taylor's death was also a major story in the mainstream media last week, registering as the No. 3 subject in PEJ's News Coverage Index.
Taylor became known not only for her screen work but also for her AIDS activism, her style, and her numerous marriages. As they shared their favorite recollections, though, bloggers most often remembered Taylor the actress-whose career peaked in the 1950's and 60's.
And as an example of how social media allow for new kinds of interactions online, many bloggers used their sites to link to the Los Angeles Times obituary or to pictures and videos of Taylor available elsewhere on the web.
The next biggest topics in the blogosphere last week were the Japanese earthquake followed by the war in Libya, a reversal of the news agenda in the mainstream media where coverage of Libya far exceeded that of Japan.
In this respect, bloggers seemed more in tune with the public than mainstream media were. According to the News Interest Index produced by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, considerably more respondents said the situation in Japan, rather than the fighting in Libya, was the story they were following most closely last week.
The attention to the recovery efforts in Japan followed several different storylines. Some bloggers focused on the damage to the Fukushima power plant while others were alarmed by the discovery of tiny amounts of radiation as far away as Sacramento. But the story of a Japanese man who rescued his family and others trapped by the tsunami became a source of inspiration amid the despair and fear.
The general sentiment from bloggers who discussed Libya, the third-biggest story, was that of skepticism. Writers wondered why the U.S. had undertaken the military mission, and were concerned that other countries in the international coalition would abandon the conflict, leaving the U.S. with the full cost and responsibility going forward.
The No. 4 story on blogs, at 10%, was about a 400-pound former sumo wrestler named Kelly Gneiting who completed the L.A. Marathon in just under 10 hours. Gneiting, who jogged and walked the course, may have set a world record as the heaviest person ever to complete a full marathon.
And a BBC travelogue video about Ukraine, a country that will host the 2012 European Championships along with Poland, was the fifth-biggest story at 3%.
On Twitter, the top stories were a mix, with a heavy emphasis on technology.
The lead subject, with 12% of the links, was phone giant AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile for $39 billion. The deal, which is awaiting government approval, will mean that AT&T gets access to roughly 35 million T-Mobile customers pushing the company ahead of Verizon in the number of subscribers. Twitterers were mixed as to whether the merger was a positive or negative development.
In another sign of the ascendancy of social media, the addition of several new words to the Oxford English Dictionary Online-including the online colloquialisms of "LOL" and "OMG,"-was the second-biggest story with 10%.
A BBC story about a team of researchers who studied census data and predicted that religion may become extinct in countries such as Australia, Canada, and Ireland, was the No. 3 subject at 7%.
News that the professional-oriented social networking site LinkedIn recently passed 100 million users was fourth, at 6%, followed (also at 6%) by an article about an iPhone app created by the World Wildlife Fund that encourages people to take small steps to help the planet every day.
An Icon Passes
The Los Angeles Times' lengthy obituary for Elizabeth Taylor received a lot of attention from bloggers. Many posted the lead of the piece with a link to the rest of the article, while a few added some brief thoughts. The overall message from the bloggers was that Taylor represented a glamour and celebrity that has largely vanished from the entertainment industry.
"It could not have been written better and gives a great insight into the old days of Hollywood," explained Theo Kingma.
Other bloggers posted photographs of Taylor from some of her most famous movie roles.
Cheers to New Beginnings, for example, highlighted several images including Taylor alongside the original Lassie in the 1946 film Courage of Lassie and one of her as Cleopatra in the epic 1963 film by the same name.
And given the ease with which bloggers can now post videos on their own sites, some embedded clips from Taylor's movies. The Los Angeles Times blog 24 Frames devoted a page to videos of five of Taylor's "most unforgettable roles" such as National Velvet and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Some online shared personal reactions to the news.
"what horse crazy little girl wasn't inspired by your role in national velvet?" asked Cookie Jill at skippy the bush kangaroo. "i always thought you blossomed into the most beautiful woman in the world. such an amazing and turbulent life you led...but with grace throughout. god speed, liz. god speed."*
"The one thing I always admired about Elizabeth Taylor was that even when she went slumming in bad movies or appeared on TV programs that were probably better off not visited she still had this admirable capability to, as I often say, class up the jernt," described Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.
Mostly, however, bloggers wanted to discuss Taylor's unique place in the Hollywood firmament.
"Taylor was a strong cookie who endured her fair share of battles. She was a mother of four, a wife, a philanthropist, a businesswoman, a survivor, and a legend," declared Krystal Clark at Right Entertainment. "Some affectionately refer to as ‘the last great movie star' a title we wholeheartedly agree with."
"Archie Bunker would say ‘Those were the days!'" wrote MHB at The Exchange. "Movie stars were larger than life and studios carefully managed their image. There was none quite as fascinating to the public as the lovely Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor ho passed away earlier today."
"I bet her and Michael Jackson are having so much fun in heaven right now," added CK at Bangs n Cupcakes.
Japan Continues to Deal with Tragedy
In discussing Japan last week, some bloggers reprinted a Los Angeles Times article discussing various religions' views on the spiritual meaning of tragedies. Others were paying close attention to the attempts to prevent a nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima power plant.
A report that the EPA announced that a minuscule amount of radiation from Japan was detected in Sacramento-not enough to cause any harm-also resulted in some strong reaction.
"And these traces of radiation from Japan as just the first amount emitted from that nuclear plant...wait til the radiation gets here from the meltdowns," predicted Mike at offmyfrontporch.com.
In addition to all the ominous news, one feel-good story emerged.
Hideaki Akaiwa, of Miyagi prefecture, decided not to wait for rescue workers to come to his neighborhood, so he gathered some scuba gear and went on his own to find and rescue his wife and mother. And even though authorities have not given an all-clear for Akaiwa's neighborhood, he continued to search through flooded areas to try and find more survivors.
Bloggers found Akaiwa's story inspiring.
"No doubt many stories of heroism in the face of Japan's recent tsunami will emerge in the upcoming weeks...but the latest is so beautiful and fantastical that it seems primed for a Hollywood movie," shared Nick Lemarr.
"This amazing man, whose dress style is being compared to the likes of Rambo continues to navigate through flooded streets, dodging wreckage and hazards to rescue more survivors in his neighborhood," applauded Danielle BZ. "Amazing, this guy is my hero!"
For the second consecutive week, dramatic footage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan dominated the most popular news videos on YouTube. Last week, four of the top five videos were of the disaster.
The top video, which was posted online by Britain's Channel 4 News, included two minutes of the tsunami rushing into the Miyako City. Within the video, cars are swept away, power lines crash, and houses are completely flooded.
Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube For the Week of March 19-25, 2011
1. Footage of the tsunami devastating parts of Miyako City, Japan.
2. Aerial footage from Russia Today of some of the hardest hit regions in Japan
3. Amateur footage, posted by Russia Today, of the tsunami swallowing homes and villages in Japan
4. A Tucson sports director is almost hit by a vehicle while reporting for a local TV broadcast
5. Russia Today footage of the aftermath of some of the worst-hit areas in Japan
The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the leading commentary of blogs and social media sites focused on news and compares those subjects to that of the mainstream press.
PEJ's New Media Index is a companion to its weekly News Coverage Index. Blogs and other new media are an important part of creating today's news information narrative and in shaping the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of online blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compared with the narrative in the traditional press.
A prominent Web tracking site Icerocket, which monitors millions of blogs, uses the links to articles embedded on these sites as a proxy for determining what these subjects are. Using this tracking process as a base, PEJ staff compiles the lists of links weekday each day. They capture the top five linked-to stories on each list (25 stories each week), and eads, watches or listens to these posts and conducts a content analysis of their subject matter, just as it does for the mainstream press in its weekly News Coverage Index. It follows the same coding methodology s that of the NCI. Note: When the NMI was launched in January 2009, another web-tracking site Technorati was similarly monitoring blogs and social media. PEJ originally captured both Technorati's and Icerocket's daily aggregation. In recent months, though, this component of Technorati's site has been down with no indication of when it might resume.
The priorities of the bloggers are measured in terms of percentage of links. Each time a news blog or social media Web page adds a link to its site directing its readers to a news story, it suggests that the author of the blog places at least some importance on the content of that article. The user may or may not agree with the contents of the article, but they feel it is important enough to draw the reader's attention to it. PEJ measures the topics that are of most interest to bloggers by compiling the quantitative information on links and analyzing the results.
For the examination of the links from Twitter, PEJ staff monitors the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Icerocket, PEJ captures the five most popular linked-to pages each weekday under the heading of "news" as determined by Tweetmeme's method of categorization. And as with the other data provided in the NMI, the top stories are determined in terms of percentage of links. (One minor difference is that Tweetmeme offers the top links over the prior 24 hours while the list used on Icerocket offers the top links over the previous 48 hours.)