RIP Michael Jackson: your passing has shown the power of Twitter

There was Michael Jackson, milling around somewhere at the back of my consciousness in a box labelled “top tunes, disturbed person, poor old thing”, and I’d gone out to supper last Thursday and came back at about 11pm, made a cup of tea and logged on to Twitter, as you do, whereupon I found hundreds of people were posting about Jackson being taken to hospital, being in a coma, possibly being dead.

I turned on the television but that didn’t give me any new information at all. Ten minutes later someone posted on Twitter that the Los Angeles Times was confirming that Jackson had died. Meanwhile, the news networks were still speculating; it took them a good 20 minutes to catch up and call in the talking heads — people who had met Jackson twice 15 years ago and who spouted the most hilariously inane platitudes such as, “Of course, he was a tall man. Over six foot.”

Back on Twitter — I very nearly wrote “back in the real world”, because that is what Twitter now feels like — people were doing what twitterers do best: engaging with each other and passing on news, thoughts and information.

Los Angeles residents were reporting that the sky had blackened with helicopters, describing the crowd outside the hospital, discussing the television commentary, making playlists of Jackson’s work, expressing sorrow, saying how stunned they were and making jokes. Hundreds and hundreds of jokes. The death couldn’t be blamed on the sunshine or moonlight, which left only the boogie (everyone); “Let’s all turn our Twitter pictures white. It’s what he’d have wanted” (@wardytron); “Reports of MJ's death are incorrect. He was found in the children’s ward having a stroke” (@ivan007). And so on.

The jokes, as off-colour (see what I did there?) as you might expect, came within minutes of the announcement of Jackson’s death, swiftly followed by everyone wondering whether Elton John would once again nobly volunteer to record another reworking of Candle in the Wind.

Concurrently, there was an outpouring of sadness and bewilderment. As I am constantly saying, Twitter is an extraordinary thing which we should all feel privileged to be able to access: a snapshot of the global consciousness at any given moment, whether you’re interested in Jackson or Iran or bee-keeping, with information, opinion and emotion thrown in.

On Thursday night and Friday morning the site was a swirling cauldron of grief, humour, sentimentality, cynicism and every emotion in between, in real time — although not always from real people: somebody pretending to be David Miliband, the foreign secretary, found his zeitgeisty “RIP Michael” entry solemnly quoted in Friday’s newspapers. David Schneider, the comedian, compared the site to “a Hadron collider of grief and sick gags thrown together”.

I read and clicked and tweeted until about 2am, pausing occasionally to roll my eyes at the feeble television coverage which featured a string of uninteresting, unoriginal and unfunny people, at which point I thought I’d better go to bed.

I couldn’t sleep. Strange: the shock of hearing about Jackson’s death had passed, I felt sated with information, I’d watched a sad little clip on YouTube. But no sleep. I felt weirdly discombobulated and couldn’t really work out why since I’m not a Jackson obsessive, or even much of a fan. Farrah Fawcett had died earlier on the same day — sad, too, obviously but again hardly devastating for me at a personal level compared with the extremely disturbing footage of Neda Agha Soltan in Tehran the previous week (well, I say “footage”: it was a snuff movie, really).

Then, because you can always rely on Twitter for someone, somewhere, to hit the nail on the head, up popped a little update. “The day the Eighties officially died” said @MusicThing. That was it, of course: the strange and unexpected sadness I was experiencing — as, judging by Twitter, were many of my friends — wasn’t so much to do with The Day the Music Died as with The Death of Our Youth.

Jackson’s passing means we are now officially old. Of course he was a musical genius and an extraordinary person at all sorts of levels, and so on and so forth. But for many of us he also functioned as a sort of figurehead — the pop star you grew up with and always assumed you would grow old with, you with increasing amounts of Botox, he with increasing amounts of looniness.

It isn’t simply that his death brought on a strong dose of intimations of mortality, but rather that — combined with the death of Fawcett, the last old-school pin-up — it marked the passing of an entire era.

For fortysomething kidults, wearing 1980s fashion for the second time around, popping out babies in our middle age, believing we’re still cool, believing we’re really not at all old and more than belong at Glastonbury 2009, something died along with Jackson last Thursday, live on Twitter.

Every generation has a rock star death that shakes them up and marks a new chapter: Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, John Lennon. It doesn’t matter whether you liked them or owned their records or were even especially aware of them. The soundtrack to the fun, carefree part of your life has suddenly ended; the stylus skitters across the vinyl (remember vinyl?), and it’s as though some stentorian voice boomed down and said, “Now do you get it?” Time to put away childish things.

That, egomaniacally enough, is why so many people who grew up in the 1980s feel an unexpected sadness at Jackson’s death. He was the king of pop, yes, and no, we probably won’t see his like again. But the most remarkable thing about his death, for me, was being able to communicate instantly with friends, acquaintances and complete strangers all over the world — to share in an event as it developed, to think and engage and be provoked.

I’m not mourning my youth. We may have had the Smiths and got there first with the batwing sleeves, but nothing is as mind-blowing as the ability to confer collectively and globally when something happens.

India Knight