Bin Laden didn’t crown the new media revolution, you did!

3 May 2011

The swift spreading of the news of the killing of Osama bin Laden is being trumpeted by many as a victory for new media, almost as much as it is a victory for the American people. But this revolution was already in full swing.

The last few days made new heroes of people. As well as the Special Forces team of Navy SEALs who executed Bin Laden in his lair in Abbottabad, there were new citizen journalist heroes. For example, there was a tweet by Keith Urbahn, chief of staff of former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who effectively confirmed the news with a tweet leading to a traffic spike of 4,000 tweets per second.

Then there was the amazing rise to celebrity of an unassuming 33-year-old IT consultant in Abbottabad called Sohaib Athar, who pretty much live tweeted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. He thought it was a helicopter crash of some kind. Unbeknownst to him, he was cataloguing the series of events that lead to the death of bin Laden for all the world to see. In just two days, he has amassed 70,000 new Twitter followers and is something of a cyber celebrity. His blog has also been attacked by malware, forcing it offline.

Just like how pop star Michael Jackson’s death was believed to signal a victory for new media because it was tweeted half an hour before any official news outlet covered it, many have seized on the spreading of the news as a victory for new media.

The new media revolution was already in full swing before this series of events but how the word spread was truly breathtaking.

Is it a victory for new media outlets like Twitter and Facebook?

These mediums were already winning. While Twitter encapsulates the speed of communication, Facebook – which is putting in place journalist resources – is also a fundamental place for transmitting news in 2011, allowing you to put pictures, words and video in a single place to be shared with potentially 500m people.

Within the first hour of the news breaking on Twitter, which has 200m users, there were more than 3,000 blog mentions and 3,235 news mentions, according to Sysomos – nine hours later this had reached 39,796 blog mentions and 40,680 news mentions. Incredible stuff.

Within hours, there was the usual array also of jokes, Photoshopped images of a dead bin Laden and all manner of spoof videos, including pretty dramatic and sensational re-enactments by Taiwanese news outlets!

Two days later and the moral questions have begun to emerge about whether it’s right to celebrate a killing – in this case, the mastermind of the devastating 9/11 attacks on the US that resulted in thousands of deaths. Many people will have fortright opinions on that one.

But it would be worth comparing how the news spread on the tragic 11 September day when the planes first started hitting the World Trade Center’s twin towers. I remember it being a Tuesday afternoon and we were putting the finishing touches to a business magazine. Deadline hour was approaching when someone said a plane hit the World Trade Center, it took a full hour for us to realise that it wasn’t a small plane but an actual airliner.

The TV went on and we hurried to our PC terminals to find out what was going on. The main news sources online then were places like Yahoo!’s portal and local news stations. What we got online were frozen pages as people everywhere overloaded the servers trying to find out what was going on. All eyes were glued to the TV screen when the second plane struck the second tower. Some people could connect, many others couldn’t.

Eventually, the whole episode was chronicled and observed primarily on TV.

Zoom forward almost a decade and I was cradling an iPad as I watched round-the-clock coverage on Sky or wherever else I could get a handle on whatever was going on regarding the death of bin Laden. I found myself flicking intermittently between my Twitter feed, my Facebook feed and admiring the neat way curated news services like Storyful captured the essence of the tumultuous events.

In the overall sequence of events you can’t doubt Twitter won out as the definitive conveyer of the important information.

If 9/11 was a TV-chronicled affair, the killing of the architect of those tragic events was a Twitter-chronicled affair.

The new media revolution was already under way. The revolutionary, however, was you.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years