The situation changed dramatically as we entered the so-called Web 2.0 era. Many websites became “social” and anybody could bring his own input, which would be integrated in some way in these collaborative spaces. The overall quantity of information increased to an inhuman amount, and could not be accessed smoothly without a search engine to aggregate and sort the data according to the needs and interests of the user. As the entry point to information switched from the website itself to the search engine, Google became the all-powerful website god; the webmasters did not control the web anymore, but at least somebody did.

Today, we have reached another step in the web complexity, as websites can get their updates from external feeds (sometimes recursively), which are themselves influenced by the input of several millions of users in blog comments or trackbacks. Then, in the same way the flap of a butterfly’s wings in France can trigger a tornado in the Pacific Ocean, we can imagine that the input of a single user (or maybe a limited number of users) can have a dramatic influence on world-class websites. And this is exactly what happened last week with the United Airlines story.

In a very limited time frame (about 30 minutes), the South Florida Sun Sentinel website received an important number of visits on the same page, a 6-year old article related to the United Airlines bankruptcy in 2002. Subsequently, the article went up in the list of most viewed stories, which are displayed on the front page (you can look by yourself in the right column). When it discovered this “new” link in the list, the Googlebot indexed it, and guessed it was a recent story. Eventually, the story appeared on the front page of Google News, with the current date, and then was forwarded to Bloomberg, the financial information leader. As you can imagine, when traders saw this story on their screens, they sold immediately every single United Airlines stock they had in portfolio. And in a few minutes, the stock price fell by 75%, with highest historic volumes.

The intra-day stock price chart for United Airlines
The intra-day stock price chart for United Airlines

Of course, they were wrong. The mistake has been quickly repaired, and the stock price got up again to its initial price, four times higher than its daily lowest. More than one billion dollars changed hands in a few minutes, with big losers, but also big winners. In the end, who is responsible? The newspaper website because it lets users alter the content of its front page? Google because it indexes blindly and automatically everything that is published on the same front page? Bloomberg because it relies on second-hand information sources while we expect it to be at the source of information? The traders because they did not check the information twice before selling stocks like crazy? Honestly, I do not have an answer, and I think they all have their part of responsibility, although they all refuse to admit it and charge the previous link in the chain (and ultimately the initial users who did the mistake to read the article again). But what is sure is that this story leaves a bitter feeling that the web is not in control anymore.