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:

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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  1. Another case in point: The Election Results