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Friday, February 17, 2012

Whitney Houston's Death And The Celeb-Blogging Search Engine Spiral

Posted By on Fri, Feb 17, 2012 at 6:06 AM

click to enlarge whitney.png

Some of the blog entries written about Whitney Houston's death last week were a legitimate outpouring of grief, and some of what I felt when I heard the news was a real sadness, a real desire to express what the passing of a musician I hadn't thought about in a few years meant to me, but this blog entry--and a thousand others--is mostly just a response to bad incentives.

At their most benign, these incentives lead to blogs ostensibly about gardening or sports cars trying desperately to write Tim Tebow's name into the front of a headline, where Google News will read it. At its most cynical, it leads to a wall of identical, slapdash posts with Whitney Houston Death in the headline--like this one--because that's what tested well and because five small posts are infinitely better for pageviews than one long one.

Earlier this week a baseball writer was excoriated, for instance, for connecting Whitney Houston's death with Josh Hamilton's considerably less serious relapse--a connection that didn't, to many people, seem quite as organic as rumination on death and addiction ought to. On the Internet, a startling majority of pageviews--even to places like Facebook--come from Google; the more something is searched for the more is written about it, and the more is written about it the more people search for it. That's literally the Huffington Post's business model: Find something people are looking for, and duplicate it until they aren't looking for it anymore.

All of this is impossible to avoid, no matter how news is disseminated--on more conventional newsstands we're no more than a day or two away from a million glossy, full-color special-tribute-editions to Whitney Houston with the same wire photos and slapped-together copy competing with each other. But I've noticed, since Michael Jackson died, that the search engine news cycle has permanently changed the way I grieved celebrities, if grieved is the right word.

Now there's no moving on when the obituary is in the newspaper and the glossy magazines have passed their sell-by date--there's just waves of repetition and re-reaction with each new bit of lurid data about the whole thing. I'm not sure if Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson would have inspired an eight-minute folk song anyway--the eight-minute folk single has, generally, died a much less tragic death. But they never will in this environment, because they can't be dead as long as people are searching for them, as long as the articles that are slapped together in response to that search traffic cause other people to search for them.

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