Social Media’s Osama Moment

by Russ Hill on May 2, 2011

Keith Urbahn Twitter Osama

I can’t let today pass without sharing a few thoughts about the huge news story of Osama Bin Laden’s death.

I’ve gotten a bunch of emails and direct messages today from those you who read this blog making sure that I saw the charts of the historic number of tweets sent out when the Osama story broke. Others wanted to make sure I had heard about the guy near Osama’s compound who unwittingly live-tweeted the U.S. raid.

This is the first major news story to break since I ended my 16+ years in the traditional news media industry. It was interesting to be strictly a consumer of information this time around.

I can’t stop thinking on this day after about how limiting some of the existing traditional media platforms are for those who are looking for information.

Obama Wants to Speak

I received a notification on my iPhone from the Huffington Post at roughly 10:15 eastern Sunday. It said President Obama was going to make an unexpected address to the nation. I immediately went to Twitter looking for information. There was absolutely no chatter about this development at that moment.

So, I turned on the broadcast television channels. Reality food shows and crime dramas were all I got. So, to CNN. A live phone interview with Donald Trump about the birth certificate. Yawn. To Fox News next. Geraldo, to his credit, was all over the President’s surprise speech. He was completely misguided in his speculation of the topic but at least he was aware something was up.

Now, back to Twitter.

And, I immediately saw Keith Urbahn’s comments retweeted by a news producer I follow in DC.

Suddenly, the chatter began increasing. Details began to come in.

I began texting friends that Osama Bin Laden was likely dead. They texted back, “what TV channel are you seeing this on?” The answer: none.

Next, to the New York Times website. Nothing.

It became clear to me quickly that Twitter was my best tool to follow this story. Chuck Todd wasn’t yet in front of the cameras in the White House Briefing Room but he was talking on Twitter.

Jake Tapper’s employer, ABC, hadn’t yet decided to break into regular programming, but he was busy tweeting to his followers what he was learning.

And, so it went Sunday night.

The Problem Is the Platform

These reporters were absolutely critical to coverage of this historic story. Their hard work developing sources paid off as they were able to break news throughout the evening.

The glaring problem was the platform.

It was incredibly slow in getting me access to them.

Jake Tapper isn’t paid based on what he tweets. I doubt Jill Jackson has ever had a performance review where her boss at CBS talked about her social media skills.

And, yet, that is increasingly how we, the audience, are best able to get value from these talented journalists.

I don’t remember the last time I watched any broadcast that Jack Tapper files video reports for. Yet, I consume his reporting constantly.

Sure, only a minuscule part of the overall news-consuming audience has a Twitter account. I’m certain Twitter will never be mainstream, at least in its current form.

I’m not concerned about the site as much as I am the technology. The speed at which Twitter allows information to flow and the direct line it opens up between speaker and audience is profound.

Information Can’t Be Slowed Down

Those of us on Twitter last night were light years ahead of people stuck watching a reality cooking show. They had no idea something major had happened in the world. Imagine if the news Obama was going to announce had something to do with our immediate safety. Would that extra 30-45 minutes have mattered then?

Information can not be held back by artificial dams.

I’m convinced the companies that will win tomorrow are the ones that are building a culture that places a high value on platforms that provide the most direct communication.

Right now, those tools reside in the space we currently call social media.

If I were at a news organization I would spend significant time evaluating how well my team (the entire team) used social media tools to inform and engage audiences on the Osama story.

And, if I were the head of a company seeking new customers and/or trying to retain existing customers I would be investing significantly in building out communication and engagement channels on social platforms.

It’s the future.

That was made clear again, Sunday night.

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