Sunday, May 8, 2011

The moment Twitter came of age in a mountainy village in Pakistan

By Jennifer O’Connell

In the unlikely event that you were following Pakistani IT consultant Sohaib Athar on Twitter before last weekend, you’d have known that he liked snow, tobacco and had fled the chaos and power shortages of Lahore for the “serene and safe smalltown life” of mountainy Abbottabad.

You’d have known that he had a wry sense of humour and a distrust of much of what’s reported in the mainstream media. You’d have known that his son was badly hurt in a car accident and had to undergo surgery; and that he had a lot of anger about the political system in Pakistan.

You’d have know that he missed good coffee so much he set up his own coffee shop - with free wifi, naturally- in his adopted home. And you’d have known that nothing ever happened in Abbottabad.

Nothing, that is, until last weekend.

Athar was still awake at 1am on Sunday when a loud helicopter started hovering overhead, sounding like it was circling.

“Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter,” he tweeted.

Then there was what he described as a “huge window shaking bang”. Athar tweeted that he hoped it wasn’t the start of something nasty.

For the next few hours, he was as much in the dark as anybody – he shared on his Twitter page rumours that one of the helicopters was not Pakistani; that it had been shot down, or that it had been involved in a training accident.

Ironically, it was through Twitter that Athar – like so many of the rest of us – discovered that what he’d heard was, in fact, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

When the news was officially confirmed some eight hours later, he tweeted a wry “Uh oh, there goes the neighborhood … [and] now I'm the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”

After Athar’s Twitter page, his blog, his various email accounts and his Skype had exploded with interview and friend requests, he eventually issued a last, pleading tweet: “Bin Laden is dead. I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now.”

If you still need to be convinced about the point of Twitter, or its role as a news medium – then, let’s face it, the events of last weekend are unlikely to have done it for you.

But consider the results of this poll from Mashable, the social media news site which generates 40 million page views every month. It asked its readers where they first heard about Bin Laden’s death. Over 14,000 people responded: fourteen per cent of them heard about it on television. But 19 per cent heard about it on Facebook – and a shocking 36 per cent heard about it on Twitter.

A full hour and ten minutes before the President of the United States made his speech on US television (at 11.35pm ET, over an hour later than scheduled) last Sunday night, Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff, Keith Urbahn, tweeted: “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn.”

Urbahn quickly added, “Don’t know if it’s true, but let’s pray it is.”

By 11pm, Obama still had not taken to the podium to address the US nation, but the news was already all over the web. The New York Times reported that at that time, there were more than a dozen Facebook posts with the word “bin Laden” every single second. The New York Post’s Web site blared, “We Got Him!” The Huffington Post front page read simply: “Dead.”

My former Sunday Business Post colleague turned Guardian correspondent in Pakistan/Afghanistan, Declan Walsh, tweeted prosaically: “F***. I’d better put my shoes on.”

As Obama’s speech finally aired on television, more than 4,000 messages were posted on Twitter per second.

Many people will remember where they were when the news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke, simply because it was news they’d been waiting nine years to hear; because for them it represented, as Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera put it, “a major victory the good guys against the baddest of the bad guys”; because it was a Kennedy moment, or perhaps they’ll remember it because the world suddenly started to feel a whole lot less safe.

But I think I’ll remember it as the day when social and online media finally went mainstream; the day when traditional forms of media finally (if probably only briefly) stopped looking down their noses at their online counterparts. By the following afternoon, most international newspaper websites had their own versions of “how the news unfolded on Twitter” pieces – which is as close as many of them will ever get to doffing their caps in respect.

On a personal level, I have many reasons to like Twitter. It’s through Twitter that I get most of my news, that I’ve got back in touch with old friends and former colleagues, that I’ve researched stories and landed minor job offers and major career opportunities.

When I was freelancing from home full-time, it was acted like a virtual office watercooler, a chance to share gossip and kick around issues of greater global importance than whether Lightning McQueen really is faster than Dash from the Incredibles.

But on a professional level, it’s an absolutely essential tool – I can no more imagine being a journalist in world without Twitter now than I can imagine going back to filing all my copy in DOS, or tripping across the Liffey to the Ilac Library every time I wanted to check a fact.

Of course, Twitter postings still come with a major health warning. The more it goes mainstream, the more it is the case that you can’t believe everything you read online.

Take this tweet from @SkyNews, posted at midday on Monday: “Reaction: World Leaders Hail Obama's Death”.

This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 8, 2011.


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