Winehouse, Oslo and the bearers of bad news

Amy Winehouse’s appearance at the Camden Roundhouse in north London last month seemed to be just another strange performance by the soul singer renowned for her drug and alcohol problems.

Amy Winehouse

Lost soul: News of Winehouse's death lit up social networks.

Fresh off the wagon, Winehouse reportedly drank shots at the bar before jumping on stage alongside her goddaughter, singer Dionne Bromfield. Video footage of her last public appearance shows Winehouse dancing and playfully pushing her 15-year-old protégé. There is disagreement over whether she was drunk. Here’s the video if you want to judge for yourself.

Winehouse then set off on a bender starting at a local house party, went out to score crack cocaine or retired home early to practice the drums, depending on your preferred source.

Within 72 hours, rumours of her death had lit up Twitter, 30 minutes before mainstream sources confirmed the news.

The first details were immediately and widely distributed on Facebook. The Independent’s initial story was shared about 1800 times on Facebook, making it one of the most shared stories in a month that also included the Oslo massacre (more on how that was shared later in this post). A similar response was observed at ninemsn with more than 2000 shares of the initial story.

A recent virality study at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found sad stories were less likely to be shared than feel-good stories. Winehouse’s death was, from any angle, a sad tale. But it was also a shocking event in the sense that the news provoked surprise in the audience. In their study of The New York Times most-emailed list, Wharton’s Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman found that people were more likely to share content when in a state of high arousal and that this trumped ‘valence’ (whether content is positive or negative).

“The more well-known something or someone is, and the more surprising an event, the more likely they should be to be talked about,” Berger told Share Wars in relation to Winehouse’s death.

Having sold several million records, Winehouse had transcended celebrity through her music to connect with millions on an emotional level. News of her death found an audience already primed for sharing.

Berger and Milkman acknowledge earlier research that shows people share content for ‘self-presentation purposes’, to say something about themselves to their audiences. What many in social media seemed to be saying about themselves was that they understood a great talent had been lost to the world. Other celebrities seemed to be saying, “I knew her”.

Sarah Brown, the wife of former prime minister Gordon Brown, wrote on Twitter: “Just heard the sad news that Amy Winehouse has died. At only 27 what a terrible waste of a great talent. Sincere condolences to her family.”

Also on Twitter, Jamie Oliver wrote: “Such a terrible shame to lose Amy Winehouse such a talent, such a waste, raw talent.”

Burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese wrote: “Devastated. I spent extraordinary times with Amy. She sang for me once for hours, it was the most beautiful & touching thing. A huge loss.”

There’s a good chance several other story elements drove the story’s dissemination through social networks. Research shows people share emotionally charged content to make sense of their experiences or deepen social connections. It is also well established that people share news to appear knowledgeable. These drivers undoubtedly contributed to sharing of the Winehouse story.

The Oslo massacre was, in human terms, a far bigger event than Winehouse’s death but the story was only one-third as ‘shareable’. The first Oslo stories were shared once for every 335 page views whereas the Winehouse news averaged one share for every 94 page views. (Dividing page views by shares provides a very simple but accurate ‘sharing index’).

Perhaps Winehouse’s music and her journey down the rock star’s path to self-destruction provided a connection to the story people could relate to and feel compelled to share. Perhaps because the Oslo massacre was domestic and unrelated to the Islamist terrorism narrative, people did not connect with it on the same scale.

Maybe Oslo was just so horrible and seemingly random, it didn’t bear thinking about, or sharing.

Andrew Hunter

About Andrew Hunter

Andrew Hunter is Editor-in-Chief of Microsoft's MSN. Twitter: @Huntzie

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