Before President Barack Obama officially informed the country and the world that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden had been killed, Facebook and Twitter were lit with news and celebratory postings.
As news hit late Sunday night that the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks had been killed, people in the U.S. and around the world turned to their social networking sites. After 11 p.m. EDT, Facebook news feeds were filled with comments about bin Laden's death. Twitter was overflowing with information and links.
News of the Al Qaeda leader's death broke on Twitter. After that, the site was flooded with people tweeting about the news. According to Twitter, Sunday night the site had its highest sustained rate of tweets ever. From 10:45 p.m. to 2:20 a.m. EDT, there were an average of 3,000 tweets per second. At 11 p.m., the microblogging site peaked to 5,106 tweets per second, and at 11:45 p.m., when Obama finished his remarks, there were 5,008 tweets per second.
To put those numbers in perspective, during this year's Super Bowl, there was a 20-minute period above 3,000 tweets per second and the sports event peaked at 4,064 tweets per second.
It was another example, according to industry analysts, that social networking sites are increasingly becoming people's go-to communication tools when there is a significant news event. Ironically, it was the lack of communications at the bin Laden compound that led U.S. intelligence officials to conduct months of surveillance of the site.
Whether it's a devastating earthquake or tsunami, a government crackdown or the elimination of a terrorist leader, people turn to Facebook and Twitter, said to Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group.
"Facebook and Twitter are rapidly become the de facto standard for communications," Kerravala said, adding that he found out about bin Laden's death on Facebook Sunday night. "It's like communication 'crack.' Once you start, there's no going back."
Kerravala immediately added an online comment about the news, and he wasn't alone.
- As the news spread online, celebratory flash mobs gathered in Times Square in New York City, in front of the White House and other cities.
- At the Philadelphia Phillies game, there was no announcement about bin Laden over the loud speakers but fans began chanting "U.S.A." as they got word about it on their smartphones and other devices.
- Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff Keith Urbahn may have been the first to leak the news on Twitter. On Sunday night he tweeted, "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn." Then he quickly added, "Don't know if its true, but let's pray it is."
- While Urbahn leaked the news, it was a Pakistani IT consultant, Sohaib Athar, who tweeted a play-by-play of the raid on bin Laden's compound, without realizing its significance. "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)," he tweeted. "all silent after the blast, but a friend heard it 6 km away too... the helicopter is gone too."
- Bin Laden is Dead pages began popping up on Facebook.
- At 12:25 p.m. Monday, eight of Twitter's 10 trending topics were related to the death of Osama Bin Laden.
- Google Earth shows the compound where Bin Laden was found.
"Our dependence upon social media mirrors our growing dependence upon mobile devices," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis. "What was at one time a curiosity and then a luxury has quickly become so intertwined throughout our daily lives that it is hard to imagine a world in which social networking had never been invented."
Shimmin said he first learned that bin Laden had been killed on Twitter, not on television.
"After first seeing one or two tweets on the subject, I quickly did a hashtag search to verify that what I was reading was being referenced by a large number of people and linked to a reputable news source. It was BBC News in this case," he added. "After that little process, I felt as though I could trust what I was reading and that I had been informed of the news from many different vantage points, each with independent motivations, backgrounds, national histories. I find that process much more trustworthy than listening to a single TV station."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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