The Internet –– good for disseminating pictures of cats, and also good for changing the way that everyone in the world experiences major historical events. Earlier this month, a team of SEAL commandos burst into a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, the head of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. In years past, news of the raid would have been tightly controlled by the White House, and released to the press in careful, pre-apportioned doses.
Consider first the way in which the news of the raid was first broadcast. On the evening of May 1, a tech consultant named Sohaib Athar used Twitter to unwittingly live blog the arrival of US forces in the city of Abbottabad, beginning with the (apparently noisy) arrival of American choppers and the clatter of gunfire. "Interesting rumors in the otherwise uneventful Abbottabad air today," Athar wrote.
Athar did not put the pieces together until later –– "Uh oh, now I'm the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it," he joked –– but his tweets were picked up by several mainstream media outlets, and have since been used to help create a timeline of the raid. Which just goes to show: In the age of high-speed Internet and Twitter, there is no longer such a thing as a top secret mission, even one undertaken by the secretive folks at SEAL Team Six.
The Twitter rumors were flying on this side of the world, as well. On May 1, Keith Urbahn, chief of staff for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, took to the microblogging platform to spread the word of the bin Laden raid. "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn," Urbahn wrote, in the Tweet Heard Round the World.
Meanwhile, as news of bin Laden's death trickled out –– and as the TV networks struggled to fill the very long hour before President Barack Obama took to the podium, to actually confirm the raid –– Internet traffic soared. Users clicked sites such as Reuters.com and NYTimes.com millions of times, chasing down rumors, and following the latest dispatches from reporters in the field.
CNN points out that the phrase "osama bin laden dead" hit "volcanic" on Google Trends –– the kind of traffic explosion usually reserved for Apple devices. (It's worth noting, however, that bin Laden's death did not yield nearly as many clicks as the World Cup, or even the royal wedding. So, Web users have their priorities, obviously! Cake and soccer before terrorist raids.)
But it was Twitter where the real action took place. According to CNN, between 10:45 p.m. EST on Sunday night and 2:20 a.m. on Monday morning, Twitter users logged an incredible 3,000 tweets per second. Which is a lot, but again, not quite enough to break records: Twitter says that during the March 11 earthquake and the arrival of the 2011 new year in Japan, users sent 5,530 tweets-per-second and 6,939 tweets-per-second, respectively.
And there may be more to come. Over at Gawker, reporter John Cook notes that the White House could eventually be forced –– one way or another –– into distributing a photo of bin Laden's corpse. In the hours after the firefight, fake images from the compound leaked out across the Web, drawing plenty of clicks. A real, authenticated White House photograph would likely send the Web into overdrive all over again.
Does the Google Trends "hotness" scale go past "volcanic"?
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