The age old question that accompanies every major news event, ‘Where were you when..?’ has now been replaced by a more pressing question that reflects the influence of social media and the multitude of methods we now have at our fingertips for the purpose of information sharing — ‘How did you get the news..?’
Many journalists are now avidly following Twitter to keep on top of the latest breaking news updates. Twitter has the advantage of being instant, and because of its character limit, can only carry succinct 140 character news items. This keeps updates brief.
One outcome of the recent coverage of the death of Osama Bin Laden has been that the unsuspecting Twitter user that was first report anything strange happening, Sohaib Athar, @ReallyVirtual, has become almost a celebrity news source.
His Twiiter update stating that he could not sleep due to a “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)” has entered the history books.
The irony in this case is that, being unaware of the true reason for the presence of the helicopters, he jokes in later tweets about swatting them away.
As he was not intending to report on the event as a news story his activity may not conform to the strictest definition of what constitutes a citizen journalist. But aggregated as a whole there is a sense that through Twitter there is a journalism of the citizenry taking place.
He tweeted this first news piece at 8.58 pm GMT on May 1st and continued to provide updates to his followers throughout the night until the reality of his role in these events hit home. This sudden realisation was outlined by his tweet “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.” at 5.41 am GMT on May 2nd.
The story of Bin Laden’s death has given previously held ‘tweets per second’ records a run for their money. Twitter has reported astonishing figures from the night in question.
At 11 pm on May 1st, there were 5,106 tweets per second, a record second only to Japan’s staggering 6,939 TPS on NYE 2010 as Japanese tweeters wished their followers an “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu” (“Happy New Year!”)
Unlike the Japanese New Year celebrations which lasted minutes, the intensity of the Twitter traffic was sustained at this level for almost two hours.
Although ABC, NBC and CBS did not break the news of Bin Laden’s death until 10.45 pm, it should be made clear that as professional journalists in the mainstream media they are required to double-check and corroborate their stories. Timeliness is not the only factor to keep in mind when reporting the news.
However, it seems as far as breaking news stories lie, Twitter has now established itself beyond question as a primary source.