The Problem with Instant News, starring Osama bin Laden

Do you know how many tweets have gone out about Osama bin Laden since his death, roughly 30 hours ago?

I’m going to go ahead and peg that number close to 100 million. Why? Because Twitter counted an average of 3440 tweets mentioning Osama per second for nearly 2 hours straight (source). That’s over 24 million on its own.

Everyone is a News Agency

Networks like Twitter (and Facebook, and YouTube, and Tumblr) are a great way for content to spread. Add to that their ubiquity, along with the growing popularity of smartphones and near-constant internet access. In short: it’s never been easier to share a message with twenty-thousand of your closest friends.

A few corollaries here:

  • News spreads quickly online. Instantly, even.
  • Rumours spread just as easily.
  • Bigger news will get more people talking.

When you have all three of these, like Osama, the volume of messages increases exponentially. Partly because so many people care so much about the topic, but also largely due to the economics of scale: the more messages, the more likely some information is false, which causes more messages due to debate, vilification, etc.

Add all this together, and we have tens of millions of people all anxious to share the latest news with their network. And that’s great!

But it’s also really annoying, because we’re all doing it at the same time.

“Latest” and “News” are Ambiguous

The morning after Osama’s death, it probably seemed like breaking news to a lot of people. That was at least twelve hours after the fact, though, so much of the internet had already been talking about it for (digital) ages. Then there’s everyone that found out around lunchtime, or later that evening, along with everyone that won’t find out until later this week.

The problem is that everyone wants to tell someone the second they find out. So they post it! This creates a mess of duplicate information. Social networks, blogs, IM, email; all of them are suddenly and perpetually inundated with a constant stream of updates. All saying the same thing.

Not only is it boring seeing the same few links everywhere you look, but this overdose of useless information also drowns out whatever you were hoping to find from your network in the first place.

Traditional News Outlets are Getting it Right

The key difference between the big players and everyone else is that organizations like CNN can control their updates. This is a refreshing change from the masses. Compare a single voice — providing timely information and only repeating itself when warranted — to the voices of everyone else around you, all yelling the same thing at the same time.

Which would you rather listen to?

This is a rare circumstance where I feel the old-fashioned news networks are nailing it, and us hipsters with our Twitters have a lot to learn.

What can we take away from this for next time?

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4 Responses to “The Problem with Instant News, starring Osama bin Laden”

  1. Leah Menard Says:

    Another case in point: The Election Results

  2. Jake Tober Says:

    I think you already mentioned the key points which for me answers your question “which would you rather listen to”, and that is that “some information is false” and also “organizations [...] can control their updates”. These two facts when put together leads us to the terrifying state where peoples definition of whats true and real is coming from only a few sources, any of which could have been undetectably modified to say whatever the hell those networks decided to say. Cause really, are you going to fly out to the middle of a war zone to verify if the network is being truthful about something? Heck no.

    But if hundreds or thousands of people are reporting the same thing then that has considerably more weight behind it, especially if there is ongoing debate and questioning of sources. Even if some false information is injected into the storm of messages, it should be drowned out by the truth due to sheer volume of the original sources provided there is more than one original source.

    The tendency of people to repeat information does actually backfire here when the topic is something ordinary people couldn’t possibly know or verify since the “original” source may have been a controlled network or person with biased or malicious intent. In this case even though thousands, or millions of people have repeated the same info, it is no more trustworthy than if you saw or read it from a news network.

    The election I think is a great example where the web wins out since any person can log onto the official election results page and see the numbers with their own eyes. Thus anyone trying to lie about the results would be quickly squashed. Bin-Laden on the other hand, no one can verify the results so no trust can be associated with the updates. “It happened because it was on tv” would also mean that vampires are real, earth has been destroyed multiple times over and we can build spaceships that can fly at warp 10.

    In general though, for information which normal people can know and verify, I would much rather listen to status updates than any news network.

  3. Caroline Says:

    I think this ties in with a previous topic you wrote about: twitter and facebook filters. During something momentous, I prefer to isolate myself from social media and just focus on one TV station. Why? Anyone with fingers (or talons) can write what is going on in the world at any second, but to have a live broadcast… You really have to plan that! Video guy, host lady, educated guests on the subject, TelePrompTer guy. And they are all accountable. This way, I have a face to listen to! Then again, I did hear about Osama on twitter…

  4. dan Says:

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone! Some thoughts:

    Jake, the terrifying downside you point out is something I hadn’t considered. I feel rather short-sighted and a shade naive for having missed it. It’s an excellent point, and I thank you sincerely for highlighting it so well.

    Caroline, I think you’re spot on about a news cast being more organized. That’s what makes it so much more fluid. There is a real person — perhaps an entire team of real people — whose job it is to ensure that the broadcast is a success. No such guarantees in the anything-goes world of social media.

    And Leah, I see one significant difference between Osama-news and Election-news: opinion. In the case of Osama, everyone is just rehashing the same piece of news. For elections, everyone has their own take on exactly what went down and what this means. This makes election-related posts much easier to swallow, because the amount of truly duplicate information will be low.

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