By Ben Simmons

It was a story that everyone hoped wasn’t true. On Saturday, Feb. 11, the day before the Grammys, Twitter and Facebook posts reported that one of the music industry’s once brightest stars, Whitney Houston, had died.

Variations on the hashtag #RIPwhitney filled the top trending spots on Twitter. Facebook feeds were filled with memories of the late singer’s music — a first kiss, a first dance or first song ever bought. And YouTube exploded with videos of Houston’s past performances.

An hour or so after reports of the singer’s death began appearing via social media sites, the mainstream media began reporting confirmations of her death. As the day progressed, the major cable news stations began reading celebrity tweets aloud memorializing the singer and encouraging readers to visit their Facebook fan pages to join in the discussion.

When a major story like Houston’s death breaks, online news sites, newscasters, reporters, bloggers — everyone relies on editorial judgment to determine what news to present to the public. Stories such as Houston’s death are easy to identify. Other trends or stories, such as the Rebecca Black “Friday” phenomenon, may take days, weeks or even months to get on an editor’s radar — by which time the Internet has moved on. (In case you missed it: Black is a teen singer who rose to brief Internet stardom last year when her “Friday” video went viral.)

Starting now, you don’t have to wait to get introduced to stories like Rebecca Black. All you need to do is visit msnNOW, a new service from MSN that launches today. The service, available at now.msn.com, surfaces the latest buzz from Facebook, Twitter, Bing and BreakingNews.com. It’s designed to “cut through the clutter” on the Web to provide a real-time view of breaking trends and the hottest social conversations, what people are saying about them, and why they matter.

“msnNOW is really about keeping consumers in the know about the hottest topics on the Web,” says Bob Visse, general manager for MSN and the person who will lead the new service’s overall direction. “We’re using technology we built that analyzes all the social signals from Twitter, Facebook and the Web as well as search signals that come from Bing.”

Those signals are analyzed using a new tool developed in-house at Microsoft — the Demand Dashboard. In addition to pulling out trends from the roaring torrent of social media in real time, the tool also looks at what people are searching for on Bing.

“What we’re really looking for is the velocity of trending topics — what’s boiling to the surface,” Visse says. “The goal is to catch trends as they are accelerating and capture them before they hit the mainstream, in a way that is captivating.”

The msnNOW editorial team lives and breathes the Demand Dashboard feed, using it to handpick the most interesting and popular items to present to its audience of “info snackers.” The real-time information enables editors to catch trends as they emerge, Visse says. If a name or topic begins trending that the team doesn’t recognize, they can research it immediately and determine if it’s worth putting on msnNOW. The reporting team then prepares text snippets about the final story candidates. This marriage of technology and reporting ensures readers are getting the latest breaking trends that are truly buzz-worthy.

“We keep it to a hundred words or less because the demographic interested in these trends is very accustomed to ‘info snacking’ throughout the day. They’re used to this shortened language,” Visse explains. “It’s definitely a trend we’ve observed pretty extensively.”

The “infosnacks” will be available wherever audiences want to sample them — on their computer, through Facebook, via mobile, or on any other portable device with an Internet connection. “It’s a way for us to connect with users wherever they are, in whatever mode they are in,” Visse says.

The mobile version of msnNOW features a full HTML experience, perfect for checking on news while standing in line or waiting for a bus.


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