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24 July 2012

Margaret Mahy's death and the Twitter shockwave

Margaret Mahy’s death has come as a shock to New Zealand, and to the world.  The haunting stories she wrote still resonate in the minds of adults, and delight children now as much as in the seventies. Her presence in the libraries of many Canterbury childhoods was as certain as books on the shelves. It’s sad that she is gone. She lives forever through her stories, and will continue to inspire awe whenever she is read.
Since the news of her death broke last night I have been struck with awe for another reason. I found out about her death from book blogger Graham Beattie on Twitter at 8.48pm — seven minutes before the NZ Herald reported the news, and at least twenty minutes before Stuff caught on. Later in the evening I read that the Whitcoulls Facebook page had reported her death earlier in the day than Twitter.  This was a fascinating illustration of how social media has become a trusted news source, and I realised that it’s now difficult to pinpoint the ‘source’ of many news items.
But this is not what had me on the edge of my seat last night. About forty minutes after I read Graham’s tweet, I typed Margaret Mahy's name into the Twitter subject search box. Her death was the fourth most talked about topic in the world. I refreshed the page once a minute and saw ’52 new tweets’ ‘145 new tweets’ … ‘309 new tweets’… I felt I was witnessing a phenomenon rather than words on a screen. I tried to read the individual tweets, but how futile! This was a collective outpouring of sorrow and celebration; short messages that connected with others in a never-ending web of conversation and kinship. I couldn’t turn away.
When I first read of Mahy’s death, I was alone with my sorrow. An hour later, and still in my living room, I was a part of a community of thousands.

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