Bin There, Done That

2 05 2011

The first of May 2011 will go down in history as the day that:

  • President Obama scored a huge jump in the polls
  • Osama bin Laden was killed
  • Social media trumped old media
  • Thousands of college students gathered outside the White House, and no beer was involved
  • All of the above

If you chose “All of the above,” give yourself a star and a happy face.

In another one of those “what-were-you-doing-when-you-found-out” moments, Osama bin Laden’s death now ranks right up there with 911, the Challenger disaster and JFK’s assassination. Cultural signpost. Historical marker. Turning point.

But from a social-technological perspective, it was the proliferation of social media usage that has sent a huge message to old media: you can’t beat tweets. If you believe the Mashable poll, then over 50% of people found out about the killing via either Twitter or Facebook.

Now to be honest, I found out about the killing in a rather old-school way. I had been at a late meeting at school (yeah, we academics work some rather strange hours), and upon walking into the house, my wife pointed to the telly. It was at that point I ran to the computer and pulled up both Twitter and Facebook. The trending topics on Twitter were of particular interest to me, because it showed how people the world over were framing their comments regarding this significant event.

But before I continue, I must deflate the Mashable poll a little. It is an opt-in survey (we already know how fraught with error those can be). Plus, it appeared on the Mashable site as well as was copied far and wide through the social graph. It was like asking a television viewers if they had seen any commercials.

In other words, Mashable (the go-to site for tech and social media info) was polling the choir. What did they expect to hear?

Still, it is how social media are used to either break or spread a story that has huge implications. Our Twitter and Facebook feeds are balanced with both personal contacts and corporate sources, many of which are mainstream media. We may have been likely to first find out about Osama via social media, but it was probably through a cnnbrk (CNN Breaking News) tweet or something similar.

And then we ReTweeted it. Shared it. Copied it. Pasted it.

After this, we joined the discussion by adding our 2 cents to the issue. We praised President Obama and our special ops fighters. Or we pleaded for this to be a unifying moment, not a partisan “our candidate did it!” event. We joked. We cried. We drew parallels to history (many erroneously reported that Hitler had also died on 1st of May, when in fact the best guess is 30th April). If ever Twitter and Facebook ran the risk of being broken, it was last night. The sheer volume was enough to choke a horse.

Most people get their news these days from social media, mostly because it is so convenient, and we practically live there. We share it as if we were all cub reporters, with few if any of us actually providing additional news. But perhaps most importantly, the social graph, especially Twitter, has become a CB radio for the times. It’s just a place to air anything and everything.

Had this been more of a street-level occurrence, the citizen journalist aspect would have been far greater (I am thinking of Egypt, or Japan’s tsunami). Given our time and distance from the actual killing, though, the best we could do was just repost it and chime in.

And you know what? That alone may be the most important aspect of social media. Sure, there will be times when citizens scoop the pros on a story, mainly because of sheer luck and proximity. We will probably never see mainstream media go away. They have already adapted well to the digital grapevine. No, it is the fact that social media provide us with a place to simply talk about things. To vent. To speculate. To celebrate. To praise.

No generation prior could ever brag about having a global fence over which to talk to others. It is catharsis writ large. We wring our hands. We hug. And we go on to tomorrow, better people for having at least thought about, and articulated on, the day’s events.

I may not have heard about it on social media, but I got there as fast as I could. And I found my friends. I read every last thing they posted through the night. In so doing, I feel like I know them a little bit better, a little bit deeper.

Maybe it’s time to break out that beer after all.

Dr “Tweet This” Gerlich


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