Tweeting Osama: Twitter, Facebook have different roles when news develops

[3 May 2011]

By Mark Caro

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO — In the middle of Sunday night’s online explosion of reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death, Lady Gaga tweeted, “Are monsters ready for me to announce the premiere of The Judas Video?”

It was as if the pop singer had pulled her own finger at the royal wedding.

Jill Mapes, a writer who tweets as @jumonsmapes, replied, “I’m ready for you to TURN ON THE (EXPLETIVE) NEWS.”

Self-promotion, by celebrities or others, may be a social-media staple at most times, but during the hours from when President Obama’s television appearance was tipped through the revelation that the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has been killed, there was just one suitable topic of discussion.

As Jeff Jarvis, director of the City University of New York’s graduate interactive journalism program, tweeted Sunday night: “Twitter is our Times Square on this victory day.”

Sunday’s breaking news served as yet one more reminder of how the social media have changed how we process and interact with world events, even as Twitter and Facebook each prompts us to do so in distinct ways.

“For day to day stuff, Facebook is going to be where 80 percent of the people spend their time, but for breaking news Twitter is just much better suited,” said Brian Keegan, a Northwestern University graduate student who co-teaches Medill’s “Networks in the News” class.

Facebook remains the more popular site, with users creating conversation threads in response to friends’ status reports. Twitter is structured more as a straight feed of 140-character updates from folks you’ve chosen to follow, generally no permission required. If you’re keeping tabs on a healthy variety of people who share your interests, your Twitter feed should serve as an effective tip sheet.

Anyone following news organizations or journalists on Twitter Sunday night should have learned that President Obama was scheduled to speak to the nation at 10:30 p.m. EDT. If you then turned on CNN, you heard much talk of what an unusual situation this was, as well as Wolf Blitzer’s repeated assertions that although he had a hunch of what was going on, he couldn’t share it.

So it was back to Twitter, where Keith Urbahn, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff, had tweeted: “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”

You don’t follow Urbahn? No matter. His followers retweeted his posting, sending it to all of their followers, and many of them also retweeted the posting, and so on, and so on, until the news had saturated Twitterland. When government officials confirmed the news and the New York Times finally reported it, Twitter was there to tell users faster than it would have taken anyone to surf and update the relevant websites.

Twitter hadn’t reported the news; people involved with mainstream media had. (Even Urbahn said he was tipped off by a network TV producer.) One exception: Sohaib Athar, an IT consultant in Pakistan who realized after the fact that he had live-tweeted the attack on the bin Laden compound from Abbottabad. As of Monday afternoon, he’d accumulated more than 73,000 followers. (Over on Facebook a page titled “Osama Bin Laden is DEAD” had been “liked” by 400,000 users by late Monday afternoon.)

Nonetheless, the baton has been passed from the days of people huddling around the TV to hear “Uncle” Walter Cronkite deliver the big news.

“We will all remember where we were on the day they announced Osama Bin Laden is dead. On Twitter,” eFilmCritic.com writer Erik Childress tweeted Sunday.

A poll on Mashable.com asked Monday, “How did you hear about Osama bin Laden’s death?” With about 19,000 votes counted by late afternoon, Twitter was at 32 percent, followed by Facebook at 20 percent, television at 17 percent, phone/text at 12 percent, instant message at 2 percent and “other source” at 17 percent.

Even after the news broke, the users remained plugged in. At the beginning and end of Obama’s speech, Twitter reported hitting a peak of more than 4,000 tweets per second, third most in the service’s history. Many tweets pushed the ball forward. Others were comical in their stating what had become obvious.

Example: “@DannyDeVito: Osama is dead.”

Jarvis had been outside the World Trade Center when the planes hit almost 10 years ago. By late Sunday night, his wife and kids were asleep, and it was too late to start calling people. So he stayed on Twitter for hours, the TV relegated to the background, as he made wisecracks (his first tweet: “Ding dong”) and reflected on heavier feelings.

“I was going to go to bed and couldn’t go to bed, so I had people to talk to,” said Jarvis, whose new book, “Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Is Revolutionizing Life, Business and Society,” comes out later this year. “We wanted to be someplace where we could share our reactions and our questions and our emotions about this, and Twitter and Facebook created an incredible opportunity to do that. You know you have a public and community to talk with. That’s new. That’s very new.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/140572-tweeting-osama-twitter-facebook-have-different-roles-when-news-devel/