Where were you when you heard about Osama bin Laden’s death?
Increasingly, the answer to this and similar questions may be, “I was on Twitter.”
From the “inland tsunami” washing down Queensland’s Lockyer Valley to the Christchurch earthquake, from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to the news of the raid on the bin Laden compound, it’s been a year of “CNN moments” for the microblogging service already – and it’s still only May.
The term “CNN moment” stems from the first US war in Iraq, in 1990.
CNN’s immediate and first-hand coverage of the fighting quickly established it as the main news source during that war.
In many ways, it popularised the idea of the 24-hour news channel in the first place, and many more such channels followed in its wake (including, in more recent times, Al Jazeera and ABC News 24).
Here was a channel with a world-wide network of correspondents, able to scramble its resources within minutes to cover breaking news stories – a pattern we’ve seen repeated over and over again in the coverage of events both tragic and happy, since then.
Today, though, even that rapid response is finding it hard to compete with the still greater immediacy that can be achieved by Twitter and other social networks.
As the platform is adopted by users around the world, they start to form a network of potential correspondents which cannot be matched by any professional news organisation.
Whatever happens, and wherever it happens, chances are that Twitter users are already on the scene – and that they’re able and willing to report about it.
Though unwittingly at the time, even the commando raid on bin Laden’s hideout was live-tweeted by an Abbottabad local.
Most importantly, the first rumours and confirmed reports about Osama bin Laden’s death also emerged on Twitter before Obama had even taken the podium.
This highlights a function of Twitter that has been described as “ambient journalism” by Alfred Hermida and Alex Burns.
Twitter’s users – and those of Facebook and other similar sites – are constantly updating their followers and the wider world on what’s happening to them, and around them.
Sure, most of the time those updates may be of little general interest – but when world events unfold, these ‘random acts of journalism’ (as JD Lasica once called them) effortlessly combine to form a greater whole, a multifaceted picture of the world.
Like individual pixels on a computer screen, their individual tweets join together; like the screen surface itself, Twitter provides a platform through which events can be coordinated and put into context.
Twitter users themselves orchestrate part of this crowdsourcing effort by including “hashtags” in their messages – brief keywords, preceded by the hash symbol, such as #osama.
This allows other users to follow the stream of updates and comments on specific topics.
As news breaks, those hashtags quickly bubble to the top: Twitter turns from ‘ambient journalism’ into a real newsfeed.
What such analysis also tells us, however, is that for all the justifiable attention placed on the role of social media during such events, rumours of the death of mainstream media are much exaggerated.
Mainstream media reports about breaking events remain important sources of news for Twitter users, too, who do much to amplify the reach of such journalistic stories.
The global network of Twitter “sleeper cells” who might at any moment share generally newsworthy updates is also becoming an significant newsgathering resource for professional journalists.
Especially in areas where journalists can’t go, or haven’t yet had time to go, Twitter has become a key source of local intelligence.
What any discussion of the role of Twitter in reporting the death of Osama bin Laden will highlight, then, is that we’ve moved well past binary oppositions of “old” and “new” media, of “professional” and “amateur” journalists.
The question for journalism, and for all of us as users of the news, becomes how we might best connect our established news channels of with the emerging network of ambient journalistic activities conducted through social media.