Monday, May 2, 2011

Breaking News In 140 Characters

I casually logged on to Twitter last night at 10.30 pm to check my timeline. It only took a few seconds for me to realize that something big was brewing. I read that there were unconfirmed reports that Osama Bin Laden had been killed and that President Barack Obama was scheduled to make a televised national address soon. Within a few minutes, more and more people started tweeting and as the Twitter updates gained more urgency, it became clear that the news was, indeed, true.

Keith Urbahn, Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s current chief of staff, is credited to have been the first one to break the news on Twitter that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.

News breaking over Twitter instead of the mainstream media, is not new, of course. We’ve seen it with a lot of other recent events. Most people who are active on Twitter and who regularly check their feeds, naturally, get their breaking news from Twitter. What’s amazing to observe is how many people are increasingly turning to Twitter to find out what’s going on and to discuss and share their opinion on the turn of events. Twitter is truly the new age, virtual watercooler around which we all like to hang out and interact, irrespective of geographic boundaries, especially when something big happens.

What’s also fascinating is the speed with which news and information is being pushed out, in the age where everyone is a publisher of content. By 11.45 pm, Sysomos, a social media analytics firm, tracked 500,000 tweets, 796 blogs and 507 published articles about Bin Laden. Within 12 hours after the news broke, Sysomos had tracked 40,000 blog posts and 2.2 million tweets. By 11 pm, there were reportedly more than a dozen Facebook posts with the word ‘Bin Laden’ every second and quite a few Facebook pages and groups (one page 'Bin Laden is Dead' had over 100,000 ‘likes’ by 12 pm. During President Obama’s address, Twitter reported 4,000 tweets were being sent every second.

Just a few minutes after the news was confirmed, there was already a @ghostosama Twitter account up and running, with over 900 followers, which kept growing every second. The number of people checking in at Ground Zero on Foursquare last night also kept increasing by the minute. Google Maps had 'Bin Laden's compound' in Abbottabad marked out in no time as well.

While not everyone may have received news of Osama Bin Laden’s death from a social media channel but it was amazing to observe first-hand the exponential effect of how quickly news can flow over these channels and also it’s potential to draw worldwide attention to events and mobilize people into action.

Speaking from my own recent personal experience, I was a lot more aware and interested in what was going on in the Egypt, Libya and other Middle Eastern countries because of the updates I was constantly reading on Twitter from the people themselves. Normally, I would have just quickly read through these items in the news but I felt a lot more connected with these events over Twitter. As more and more people join social media channels, I expect that this will only enhance the power of these networks in getting information out and building a sense of community over events. We've come a long way from the time when we had to wait for the morning newspaper or the evening news program to get breaking news. And it's going to be interesting to see how far we will go thanks to the transformational power of social media.


  1. It was really interesting to watch the whole thing unfold. I almost thought my Twitter stream was going to explode, so I decided to do some number checking on what was going on and people seemed to love the info, so I just kept rolling with it.
    Thanks for sharing our stats!

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos (

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Sheldon. Thanks also for the great job with tracking the streams. It really shed some good light on how fast the news spread around the world and the sheer volume of information that was being exchanged. Quite fascinating!

  3. I was at work when the story unfolded and I had my eye on Twitter since we learned that Obama was going to speak, and Twitter is where I first saw reports of Osama bin Laden's death as well. Was also fascinating to see related posts/comments on Facebook. Social media are the king of news these days...

  4. Thanks @leemathomas for reading and commenting. It's become so much easier to share and exchange information quickly with friends on social networks. This takes a bit of the sheen out of reporters and news organizations though undoubtedly, we still need them to cut through the clutter and present us with credible information.


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