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Bin Laden is Dead. Twitter scooped Everyone.

It took me years to finally venture over to Twitter to see what all the fuss was about.  I was one of those who thought everything about it was silly, including and especially the name.  And what was with that 140 character limit?  Anything I wrote would be called a "Tweet".  Uugh.  No!

I don't remember what finally changed my mind, but now I follow over 1,000 people who, by retweeting what they've found, make up a humungous network passing along information I'm interested in.  Whenever something big is about to happen I rush to Twitter to see what's going on.

Last night I was watching TV and skimming Twitter at the same time, when around 10:15 someone tweeted that Obama would be making a "major security" announcement at 10:30 PM.  Long before any TV source was saying it, the buzz began on Twitter, thanks to Keith Urbahn, Rumsfeld's former chief-of-staff, who tweeted at 10:25 PM, "So I'm told by a reputable person that they've killed Osama Bin Laden.  Hot damn."  People who followed his tweets re-tweeted it to other people and they re-tweeted it to others and within seconds it came to me via a dozen re-tweets from people I follow.  We all knew it long before the networks and cable news channels were allowed to announce it.  They were scooped by Twitter, plain and simple.

 Sohaib Athar, an IT consultant right in Abbotabad, near the compound where Bin Laden was finally taken down, was live-tweeting earlier in the afternoon about helicopters hovering overhead, worrying that something big was about to happen.   (I didn't see it but read about it this morning. )

This isn't the first time we've been witness to events unfolding live as they happened, getting more info within minutes than we could get through conventional sources.   A woman in the middle east was live-tweeting as soldiers broke into their house and dragged her father out.  We learned later, sadly, that they had killed her father and her husband.

We heard about the shooting in Tucson on Twitter first.  People on the scene were tweeting through their I-Phones.

Such is the power of Twitter.  It still carries that unfortunate name but it's all grown up now.  Leave it to the standard sources for the in-depth reporting, but for instant news followed by source after source for more information, I'll head to Twitter first.  (This is, unless it's overloaded, which it is right now!)

I watched the shots at some baseball game, everybody got the news on their phones!

Like a ripple throughout the crowd.

Strange days!

Interesting. I think that the immediacy of news is not consequential in and of itself. A five-minute scoop doesn't mean much (unless you're a day trader). But because Twitter is such a great mechanism for delivering immediate news, more and more people are getting their news that way, which is consequently changing the nature of the news business before our eyes.

To capture an audience, news sites now have to design their stories to attract tweets. That means that they have to get them out fast, of course, but it also means that they have to choose their stories and headline them in such a way as to go viral. Much as we bemoan the celebrity gossip at HuffPo, the site is very good at the viral game--in contrast with the NYT, whose editor-in-chief recently complained, "Some once-serious news outlets give pride of place not to stories they think important but to stories that are "trending" on Twitter--the 'American Idol'-ization of news."

Ordinarily I would agree about the immediacy of the news.  The zeal to "get it first" doesn't necessarily mean they've gotten it best.  Or even right.  But last night when we heard that Obama was going to make an announcement at 10:30 on a Sunday night, there was no doubt it was going to be something big.  It was fascinating and--okay--exhilarating-- to be right in the middle of it.  It was closer to midnight before Obama finally sat before the cameras and confirmed that bin Laden had been killed.  We went from one lone Tweet saying a reliable source said bin Laden was dead to how it happened and where it happened, so that by the time Obama appeared his announcement was anticlimactic.

But beyond that, what I find on Twitter that I don't find anywhere else is, surprisingly, a depth to unfolding stories. Everybody seems to know somebody who know somebody else who got it from the horse's mouth.  In that sense, the immediacy and intimacy is hard to ignore.  But I can't see subsituting Twitter for real news sources.  What it does best after the chatter is to point us to available sources. It's a great site, a unique site, but it's not the ultimate everything.

I don't pay much attention to "trending" stories.  NYT is engaging in sour grapes.  I'm guessing Twitter helps the NYT more than it hurts.  If they publish a good story it'll get Tweeted plenty.

I didn't mean to discount the excitement of the immediacy. I was just speculating that the real impact of social media is not to be measured in the speed with which we get information but in the type of information that we get.

What's trending on Twitter isn't important because you should be watching the trends but because those trends reflect what you and everyone else are reading. In the old days, news organizations succeeded by attracting loyal subscribers. The Times is old school. While it may take advantage of Twitter, it's focused on protecting its brand as a Serious Newspaper and building its subscriber base. By contrast, HuffPo aggressively tailors its content to appeal to sharing networks and search engines.

Now if Twitter and Facebook become the primary jumping off points for news--and it's moving in that direction--the HuffPo model wins, and the Times' model loses. That means that the news we get will become more partisan and sensationalistic but also more diverse and personally relevant.

What a sad day it'll be when newspapers die out and we're forced to get all of our news and features via the internet.  I love reading newspapers.  I love turning paper pages and scanning the stories to see if there is something that I might not think I want to read but it turns out I actually do.

  With all the complaints about the NYT wouldn't it be missed if it were no longer on newsstands?  How many pages in a daily paper?  How many pieces do you read that you wouldn't have read if they hadn't been right there in front of you?  I think that's what HuffPo is attempting--those happy, unexpected discoveries--but really, it's nowhere near the same.  It's too easy to lose your place on the internet.  With a newspaper you can fold it to your spot and set it aside for days and then go back to it, knowing it's right there waiting, right where you left it. 

I hate that newspapers are dying.  I read a lot of newspaper content online, but I always consider it second-best to the real thing.  A necessary compromise, but it makes me complicit, doesn't it?

Three of my favorite pieces on the whole "breaking!" and scoop compettion and mob feeding frenzy thingies:

What to Do When News Grows Old Before Its Time
By JACK ROSENTHAL Published: August 08, 2004

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/08/weekinreview/08bott.html

Walden at 150: What Would Thoreau Think of the 24-Hour News Cycle?
By ADAM COHEN Published: August 22, 2004

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/22/opinion/22sun3.html

Speed and Credibility
By ARTHUR S. BRISBANE Published: January 29, 2011

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/opinion/30pubed.html

For extra credit Smile , an Illustration, back when Twitter used to be called "on the wire" or "police radio":

 

 

Speak of the devil. The Gray Lady has just weighed in on the Tweetification of the Bin Laden news--with characteristic condescension:

Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, some CNN watchers had already heard the news. Unconfirmed reports — that turned out to be true — of Osama bin Laden’s demise circulated widely on social media for about 20 minutes before the anchors of the major broadcast and cable networks reported news of the raid at 10:45 p.m., about an hour before Mr. Obama’s address from the White House.

It was another example of how social media and traditional media deal with the same news in different ways and at different speeds. Just as CNN once challenged newspapers and evening newscasts with a constant stream of images from the Persian Gulf war, Twitter and Facebook have become early warning systems for breaking news — albeit not always reliable ones.

I love the "that turned out to be true" caveat. Implication: The next time Twitter scoops Bin Laden's death, it will inevitably turn out to be greatly exaggerated.

PS I was alerted to this article on Twitter.

Wow, so I wonder what'll come fast on Twitter and Facebook's heels?  Embedded chips and brain scans? 

Your last line. . .priceless.

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