Nearly ten years ago, the way I first knew about the 9/11 attacks was when I received a text from a friend telling me to turn on the TV. Today, I logged onto Facebook when I woke up, after a push notification to my phone, and saw my news feed filled up with statuses bout the death of Osama bin Laden. Same device, a very different way of receiving the news.
Not that seeing breaking news spread virally on social networks is in any way new these days, but the news of bin Laden’s death shows, beyond doubt, of how integrated Twitter and other networks have become for breaking news and are the best places to head to for updates, if you can work out how to cut through the chatter.
What was interesting about this story, from a news and social media perspective, was the timing and nature of the news. Many big breaking news stories tend to be naturally chaotic as journalists scramble for facts and people Tweet without any knowledge of what’s going on – the on-the-scene Tweets tend to be fairly jumbled and it takes a bit of time to sift and verify, even if it gives you a general picture of what’s going on.
In this case, the news broke late into the evening in America and during the night in Britain, while the actual event happened in Pakistan. Without being awake during this time, I’d hazard this probably made it slightly easier to track, given there would be less people online (slightly).
Secondly, this was an unusual breaking news story insofar as although there were updates on social media from the scene and then from elsewhere as the news leaked out, it was still more of a controlled story than many big breaking news stories.
In this case, journalists were on a surer footing from the off (and probably had several articles prepared), which probably explains why the majority of articles and Tweets I’ve seen shared this morning have been from news organisations such as the Guardian and New York Times, rather than blogs or Twitter users – although Mashable, as ever, features very highly in articles I’ve seen shared.
But despite this, Twitter and other social media has shown itself to be the place to track the news. Sohaib Athar, aka @ReallyVirtual on Twitter, inadvertently liveblogged the US operation against bin Laden, while @Pauliemyers’ Twitpic shows the earliest mentions of the operation via Google Realtime (an increasingly useful search engine).
Elsewhere, the New York Times has detailed how the news and confirmation of bin Laden’s death starting leaking on Twitter, primarily from Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff, Keith Urbahn. Interestingly, and showing the importance of a trusted source, although Urbahn wasn’t the first to Tweet the news, his credibility as a source meant that he was credited with breaking the news pr, at the very least, the primary Twitter source being cited.
As the news spread, other aspects of social media came forward. On Facebook, as well as news feeds filling up with the news, the Osama bin Laden is dead group, originally set up as more of a conspiracy theory group, became a focal point for collating updates. Google Maps updated to pinpoint the area where bin Laden was killed, while users of Storify, rapidly becoming an incredibly useful curation tool, started pulling together the strands of the story.
And, as a breaking news story, this has moved quicker than usual from social media to traditional media. The story is no longer breaking, and the analysis from experts begins, as tends to be the case. But, as ever, social media is definitely not something you can view as separate from the story. As the journalists Tweet and collate the information, it’s become a complete part of the fabric of newsgathering and news viewing.
[h/t to @SueLlewellyn, who has Tweeted many of these links I've listed above.]