Bin Laden, Twitter, And Gaudy Media Baubles

At 12.15pm yesterday afternoon, I turned on ABC News24 and was told that Barack Obama was due to appear on television at 12.30pm. There was no information on what he intended talking about.

Since this was 10.30pm on a Sunday night in Washington, you didn’t need to be particularly bright to work out that something was up. Obviously there was an announcement that couldn’t wait. Without really thinking about it, I assumed it was related to Afghanistan or Iraq.

I had work to do and didn’t get back to the television until 12.35pm. Obama had not yet appeared. I opened up my Twitter client, TweetDeck, and discovered reports that Osama bin Laden was dead.

By about 12.50pm, multiple media outlets were claiming they had confirmed these reports. Many of these claims were tweeted. Some tweets contained a link to a website report.

Between 12.30pm and 1.35pm when Obama finally appeared (at 11.35pm Washington time) most television stations and every cable network were all over the story. Twitter was heaving.

A number of people retweeted Keith Urbahn, Chief of Staff to Donald Rumsfeld. Urbahn is now seen as the man who first published the news about bin Laden.

During this time, I also became aware of a Twitter user @ReallyVirtual, who had unwittingly tweeted about the assault on bin Laden’s compound as it happened. Many hours later, I looked at his account, read the tweets, and laughed at his dry humour.

Keith Urbahn's tweet at 10.24pm Washington time, May 2, 2011

Tweet by @ReallyVirtual, May 2, 2011

By the time Obama appeared, I had read a number of articles on various US media websites, mainly CNN, Washington Post and The New York Times. The Times site was hard to reach, such was the traffic. Most of these articles had little to say, apart from claiming that various sources were anonymously confirming the death of bin Laden. Some ran profile pieces and timelines from 9/11.

Obama’s appearance was far from an anti-climax because no details were available on what had taken place in Pakistan. Until Obama spoke, no-one even knew the killing of bin Laden took place in Pakistan. The short address confirmed what had been swirling on the internet and on television, and provided some brief details of what had occurred.

For the next couple of hours I relied on television and so-called mainstream media outlets for information and analysis. There was much to read on media websites. The people and organisations I choose to follow on Twitter provided links to articles of interest.

Television showed scenes of rapturous crowds outside the White House and at other places around the United States. These were punctuated by an army of commentators confidently pontificating on the significance of the occasion.

By late afternoon, Australian time, there was little new information to be had. Aside from the people celebrating in the streets, the United States was fast asleep.

I was out and about, so I turned to the car radio. As always, you can rely on ABC radio’s PM program for solid reporting, context and sensible analysis. I think I learned more of value in those 40 minutes from 6.10pm than I had over the previous hours since 12.15pm.

If I hadn’t heard of bin Laden’s death until 6pm, I would have been just as informed as any other average news consumer by 7pm.

Back home, I watched the evening news and 7.30. The story continued to rest as we waited for the Americans to wake up. As most Australians were going to bed last night, new information emerged from briefings and interviews on American media outlets.

What’s my point? Simply that I continue to marvel at the silly talk about Twitter and social media whenever a major event takes place.

This was a “CNN moment”, some said, on a par with that network’s on-the-spot coverage of the Gulf War in 1991.

This was another moment that showed the irrelevance of traditional media, some said. “I get all my news from Twitter now,” one enthusiast tweeted.

We were being led to believe that new, social, media outgunned traditional media.

Am I missing something?

Yes, I learned about what had happened from Twitter. I am a prolific user of Twitter. I use it to monitor the news. I’m not a technophobe. But Twitter is a tool, not a media outlet. It’s a platform. Like Facebook and other social networking tools, it’s a means of disseminating information. It connects people. And, yes, these days breaking news, some of it from non-journalists, tends to appear first on Twitter.

Keith Urbahn comments on his Twitter notoriety

But so what? What did I really gain from just happening to be on Twitter in the hour before Obama appeared on television? I think the answer is “very little”. If you’re a news junkie, the buzz from watching an event unfold on your computer screen is quite absorbing and I happily admit I love these occasions. But they don’t amount to anything much.

Before going to bed last night, I read a number of articles in the Australian newspapers and quite a lot from the American press, especially The New York Times. Twelve hours after news of bin Laden’s death leaked out, I was only just beginning to get my head around its significance and importance. I’m still doing so tonight, 30 hours after the news broke.

It’s absurd to value the speed and immediacy of news over the completeness, complexity and understanding that only time, more information, reading and reflection can deliver.

It’s absurd to value the instant judgements of journalists, pundits and assorted “experts” who appear in the media in the first minutes and hours after an event of significance.

Commonsense, let alone an appreciation of history, should tell us that we are a long way from comprehending the significance of the last couple of days.

We certainly shouldn’t get too excited about a tweet which delivered a piece of news before a television journalist did so. These things may excite those whose livelihoods depend on the kudos of being first with the news but they don’t have any practical effect on the rest of us.

It’s far better to see the new platforms and technologies as complementary. As this article by Erick Schonfeld on TechCrunch says, Twitter doesn’t supplant other media, it amplifies it.

Don’t forget, much of the material being tweeted yesterday came from Twitter users watching television or reading online media sites.

That’s why the traditional media outlets have set about colonising Twitter and dominating it.

Any knowledge and understanding I have of what happened in Pakistan on Sunday is derived from traditional journalism delivered by traditional media outlets. Sometimes I get it directly from the source, sometimes the source comes to me online.

But it’s still down to me to maintain my interest in the things I think matter. It’s down to me to read widely, to think and to learn.

Most of all, it’s down to me to not get distracted by the gaudy baubles of the media, mainstream or social.

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