Around 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, I was watching a Mets-Phillies game played at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on television. During the eighth inning, with the score tied, impromptu chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" roared out from a section near the third base line and quickly spread — unprompted — throughout the crowd. With a camera trained on them, Phillies fans throughout the stadium were seen looking at their cell phones and conferring with one another.
On Twitter and other social media sites, the reason for those chants was immediately clear. But not for those watching a baseball game on TV at home. That is, until, soon after hearing the increasingly loud chants, the on-air announcer broke the news to the viewing audience that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan.
Indeed, as President Obama wrote his speech to announce the news of bin Laden's death last Sunday night, most television anchors waited — not reporting what was actually happening or what many already knew. It was, in fact, the online social networks that first spread the word of the military action that killed the world's top terrorist.
Fans of Twitter and Facebook got the news first through unconfirmed reports that turned out to be true. Osama bin Laden's demise circulated widely on social media for about 20 minutes before the anchors of the major broadcast and cable networks reported news of the raid at 10:45 p.m. An hour later, the president gave a speech from the White House (broadcast via live transmission by all the major networks and cable news outlets).
The online chatter about the death of Osama bin Laden was so intense on Sunday night that Twitter set a new record. Twitter said that news of bin Laden's death "saw the highest sustained rate of tweets ever." It experienced the highest sustained rate of posts ever, with an average of 3440 per second from 10:45 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. EDT. There were more than 5 million mentions of bin Laden on Facebook in the U.S. alone, as news of the raid at his hideout spread starting around 10:30 p.m. EDT.
Where that original tweet came from is a subject of debate. One news site reported that the military operation was held in Abbottabad and that 33-year-old local resident Sohaib Athar, a software consultant, was "the guy who live-blogged the Osama raid" without even knowing it. He wrote: "A huge window-shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope it's not the start of something nasty."
GigaOm.com reported that Keith Urbahn — former chief of staff to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday tweeted the news of bin Laden's death, before either the "New York Times" or CNN had confirmed this was the news President Obama was expected to release in his scheduled address.
However, Urbahn later pointed out the information he posted to Twitter actually came from a well-connected TV news producer.
CNN initially refused to report any of the rumors that were flying through Twitter. This led to considerable frustration on the part of many of those watching the news network trying to get information. Later, the network gave credit to Twitter when it finally confirmed its own sources were reporting that bin Laden was dead.
"I have my own gut instincts on what it might be," the CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said several times on the air, adding that a senior White House official had thanked him for showing "restraint" and not speculating.
Others said they first heard about bin Laden's death through Facebook, which was also awash in status updates about the news. On television, however, came only frustration and waiting. It surely must have been frustrating for the traditional news media to not be able to share the news when he knew word had gotten out online.
Text messages and social networks also helped people absorb the news — spurring impromptu gatherings at ground zero and outside the White House. "Kennedy moment for a new generation," wrote Alan Fisher, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, on Twitter.
Sam Dulik, 20, a sophomore majoring in Latin American studies at Georgetown University, was writing a paper in his dorm room when he glanced at his Facebook page and saw an update from a friend. It made reference to a coming announcement by the president and speculated about bin Laden's death.
"It just ripped across Facebook," Dulik told the "New York Times." He watched in real time as bits and pieces of the story exploded in his Facebook news feed. Then he saw calls urging students to gather at the university's gates and head to the White House.
"For the first time ever, rather than just informing me, it spurred me into action," said Dulik, who grabbed an American flag off his wall and headed out. "I know that this is different from what happened in Egypt. But it put me in the shoes in a very real way of those people who use social media as a tool for political activism, for coordination and communication."
Once the president made his announcement, users of Instagram, a photo-sharing application for the iPhone, flooded the service with photos of the president speaking, snapped from televisions and laptop screens. Soon there were photos of American flags and then photos from the crowds gathered in New York and Washington.
Dan Gillmor, the author of "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People" and a journalism instructor at Arizona State University, told the "New York Times" it was important to remain cautious about the impact of how people are consuming real-time news. He noted, by example, the erroneous reports that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died in the shooting in Tucson in January.
The bin Laden story, however, demonstrated that a new ecosystem of news has formed. TV reports are spread through Twitter and Facebook; news that breaks on Twitter forms a part of TV and newspaper reports that try to summarize what has happened; and so on. It also illustrates the current state of news dissemination, where television and radio are limited in ways that the citizen journalists are not.
As one person told GigaOm: "Twitter breaks news. TV covers it."