It's the biggest story of this decade (so far, at least) and it seems altogether fitting it was broken on Twitter.
As you no doubt know by now, last night at 11:30 p.m. ET President Barack Obama announced that U.S. forces had finally found and killed Osama bin Laden. (You do know that, right?)
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But the story first surfaced an hour earlier on Twitter. At 10:25 p.m. Sunday, former chief of staff for Donald Rumsfeld Keith Urbahn tweeted:
So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn.
That is now the tweet heard round the world.
Urbahn discounts his tweet as having any great significance. In another tweet he says his source was a "connected network TV news producer." He also said:
As much as I believe in rise of "citizen journalism," blogs, Twitter, etc. supplanting traditional media, my tweet isn't great evidence of it.
But here's the thing that makes Twitter unique. The networks had this story, but they were constrained by the usual rules of engagement to hold it until the president had made his speech. (Because Obama started his speech 50 minutes later than scheduled, though, most reported it by 10:45 p.m. citing "sources." Still, Twitter was first.) Twitter isn't bound by those rules -- and from here on out, neither is anybody else.
The fact is, news can no longer be contained by anyone. Once it's out there, it's out there. Why a network news producer doesn't understand that –- and proceeds to spill the beans to someone outside the tribe, thinking it will remain secret -- tells you a lot about why mainstream media is flailing in the age of Twitter and YouTube.
[Update: Here's something I missed. On the ground, next to the Bin Laden compound, Pakistani IT consultant Sohaib Athar "live-tweeted" the attack as it was happening, without knowing the significance of it. In his account, he talks about the swarm of media attention he received as a result. His current tweet as I type this: "Bin Laden is dead. I didn't kill him. Please let me sleep now." ]
People ask me all the time why anybody would bother to use Twitter. This is why. True, 99 percent of the time it's pointless and annoying. But that 1 percent is incredibly useful. The same is true of 24/7 cable news -- it's on all the time, regardless of whether there's anything worthwhile to report. But when you've got a revolution or a tsunami, there's no substitute. Everyone wants to see the footage.
Interestingly, Obama apparently issued the go-ahead for the Navy SEALs while the rest of the world was watching the Royal Wedding -– another Twitter and cable news obsession. (You have to wonder: Was Bin Laden was watching the royal wedding too?)
Also interesting and a bit ironic: The U.S. apparently zeroed in on Bin Laden's compound for three key reasons: 1) it was eight times larger than any of the surrounding houses, 2) it had 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire, and 3) it had no phone line or Internet connection.
All the NSA's high-tech spying came down to finding the guy who was resolutely, defiantly low-tech. There's a certain symmetry in that.
Before people are done dancing in the streets at Ground Zero and elsewhere, I predict conspiracy theories will start about how Bin Laden's not really dead, and that it's all a hoax concocted by the White House to win the 2012 election. The birthers will demand to see Bin Laden's long-form death certificate, with Donald Trump leading the charge.
And I know exactly where it will all begin: on Twitter, naturally. Where else?
Where were you when you heard Bin Laden was dead, and how did you hear it? Post your thoughts below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article, "All the news that's fit to Tweet: Osama bin Laden is dead," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.