President Obama's late-night announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs triggered a massive amount of real-time comments, searches, social networking and video streaming. The traffic explosion bogged down news pages and for a while even crashed CNN's mobile news site.
Keynote Systems reported that CNN's mobile news site went down for a time after the news broke late Sunday night, according to VentureBeat's Dean Takahashi, who was posting news almost as it happened.
Keynote's mobile and cloud traffic monitoring system found streaming video sites going black under the heavy demand, which varied from region to region in the U.S., with most of the East Coast already asleep when President Obama made his announcement after 11 p.m. EDT. But it was still early enough for users in the western half of the country to turn to their cellphones for the latest news, search for more information, and share it via Twitter and Facebook, both of which exploded with activity.
"This caused a much bigger spike than the royal wedding," according to Dave Karow, senior product manager at Keynote, quoted by VentureBeat. Keynote said that late last night, Web news sites were about 60% available, "meaning 40 percent are down at any given moment," according to VentureBeat.
Karow was quoted: "I would expect mobile to crater faster [than regular sites]. It's a wilder frontier. But this year, web news sites are taking mobile seriously, as the number of smart phones grows. When people hear news now, they look to their mobile phones for confirmation."
Whole new ballgame
A striking example of this was last night's tightly fought, extra-innings baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets in Philadelphia. USA Today reports that as word of bin Laden's death filtered through the crowd, by smartphones and word-of-mouth, the crowd began chanting "USA! USA!'' (An AP photo captures fans at the game working their phones.)
But on the field and in the dugouts, the players had no idea what caused the chanting. "I really didn't understand what was going on there for a minute, and then someone came in and said bin Laden had been killed,'' Phillies starter Cliff Lee told Philadelphia news reporters. "It took them long enough.''
Twitter strikes again
The first report of bin Laden's death apparently was on Twitter, by Keith Urbahn, once chief of staff for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, according to The New York Times.
His tweet in full: "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn." He at once followed this with a disclaimer: "Don't know if it's true, but let's pray it is."
According to The Times: "Within minutes, anonymous sources at the Pentagon and the White House started to tell reporters the same information. ABC, CBS and NBC interrupted programming across the country at almost the same minute, 10:45 p.m., with the news. 'We're hearing absolute jubilation throughout government,' the ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz reported."
CNET's Greg Sandoval interpreted Urbahn's "scoop" as yet another example of Twitter reporting the news "first." "When it comes to being first, Twitter is a site built for speed," Sandoval wrote. While TV cameramen and newspaper journalists are rushing to get to the scene of a news event, Twitter has already compiled posts from witnesses or people directly involved.
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But then, somewhat bizarrely, he also wrote, "Though Twitter can often seem like a repository for false or misleading reports, each Twitter user should be seen as a separate news source. Some are more accurate than others and it's up to the reader to decide who is telling the truth."
Which for some Twitter users might have been hard to discern, after MSBNC correspondent Norah O'Donnel tweeted "Obama shot and killed," apparently making a typographic error which had the U.S. president and not the Islamic terrorist being killed.
"Millions discovered the news Sunday night on Twitter or Facebook," according to Stacey Higginbotham, writing for GigaOM. Broadcase television drew its share of viewers, but "many more watched the live stream from the White House on the web, or streamed it from Al-Jazeera, CNN or countless other sites offering the news in real time. And some likely followed it via Twitter for far longer than the brief address," Higginbotham wrote.
Higginbotham traced a series of "stages" in the unfolding cycle, as rumors fueled both excitement and speculation, and confirmed facts spurred users to search for more information, and sparked jubilation, commentary and humor.
One of the most intriguing stages is that mobile technology coupled with news can result in action: "This is where Facebook and social media really shine," Higginbotham wrote. "From tweets about people seeking more information from friends to those seeking to find out if others are meeting at Ground Zero by checking out a live web cam of the site, people now can learn about news and do something."
Users flocked to Google Maps to find the Pakistan compound where bin Laden was finally run to ground. Though there was no official confirmation, at least then, that the site being viewed was actually the correct location, it didn't stop users from commenting, including this satiric review: "Aside from the complimentary dialysis machine use, easy underground access to Pakistan's beautiful vast cave system, and free toaster waffles, it's a pretty big dump. The food wasn't organic, the wifi was spotty at best, absolutely no cell coverage, (yelp reviews were so wrong on that one) and no one spoke English. To make it worse, the country's best basketball player, some 6'7" dude with a turban, gets shot our first night there. And the coffee was cold. We're so not coming back."
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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