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The Internet Reacts to The Death of Joe Paterno

While we in Seattle were still recovering from our so-called “ice crisis”, the country was reeling from the latest in the Penn State drama. On Sunday, Joe Paterno, the winningest major-college football coach and face of Pennsylvania State University football, passed away from lung cancer. This, after the sudden and very public child sexual abuse scandal that rocked the nation in late 2011, was only the latest time Paterno was the center of national conversation. Using Visible’s®  social media monitoring platform Visible Intelligence®  to look at a sample of those discussing Paterno online, I was able to visualize the scale of this conversation.

As you can see in the chart below, talk about Paterno rose Saturday when Penn State student website Onward State falsely reported his death-a story quickly picked up by many national media organizations. Conversation again spiked on Sunday as reports of Paterno’s actual death came in.

Taking a deeper look at conversation pattern, we can see that online conversation spiked Saturday evening when Paterno was initially (and falsely) reported as dead by some media outlets. This led to a flurry of online conversation, both spreading and recanting the death report. Conversation then spikes again the next day when a validated death announcement is made. The confusion only added to the online storm of grievers, fans, and commenters. While emotion over Paterno’s death runs the gamut from devastation at the death to observations on his role in the Penn State scandal, conversation was very active.

It is interesting to compare the rate of Paterno-centric conversation over the last three days with that of the last 3 months. Paterno and his football program, along with indicted former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, were the center of national discussion as the child abuse scandal broke beginning in October, with online talk only falling off in late December. Paterno’s death has spiked conversation once again, and will likely lead to a renewed interest in the Penn State scandal, as well as a look at the future of the Penn State football program.

While many have mixed feelings about the man, it will always be difficult to deal with the death of a person one knows, whether that person is known on the public scale or personally. Social media provides a forum to air the questions, comments and emotions that are to be expected when a community deals with death. Hopefully this forum will assist in the grieving process, both for those effected by the Penn State scandal and those who have followed Paterno since long before.

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