Twitter captures the Osama Bin Laden raid
I turned on the radio at 0700 this morning - and heard the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. I immediately picked up my phone and tweeted this fact - only to be bombarded with messages saying this was now very old news. In the age of Twitter you have to be online all night to keep up with events.
Already this is being described as another huge day for the micro-blogging service - "Twitter just had its CNN moment", as one American website put it, comparing this event with the first Gulf War, where millions suddenly woke up to the fact that cable news was the place to observe a war unfold in real-time.
I assumed that Twitter had merely been very fast to pick up on what more conventional news sources were saying - but it appears not. More than an hour before President Obama delivered his address with the news of the operation, this tweet from a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld popped up:
So Twitter was first with the news, partly because it has become the medium now used by people in the know to spread information. But what was more remarkable was that the raid on the Bin Laden compound was actually tweeted live by a witness who didn't realise what he was seeing.
Late yesterday evening, a man called Sohaib Athar, who describes himself on Twitter as "an IT consultant taking a break from the rat-race by hiding in the mountains with his laptops," reported the presence of a helicopter hovering above Abbotabad:
He then went on to document first his annoyance about the helicopter's noisy presence, then an apparent explosion, and his dawning realisation that something big was going on. Eventually, he tweeted:
"Uh oh, now I'm the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it."
Sohaib Athar, or @reallyvirtual, had been transformed within a couple of hours from an obscure IT guy in Pakistan to an eyewitness to history. According to new figures from Twitter, he is among a global population of 200 million users. Such is the power of this network that it has become the key resource for older media trying to stay ahead of events - a journalist who does not use Twitter is now like one who abjures the mobile phone.
Other crowdsourced online news sources - from Wikipedia with its swiftly updated Osama Bin Laden entry to Google Maps which rapidly had a location for his Abbotabad compound - also proved their worth.
But there's a harsh lesson for some news organisations trying to adapt to the digital age. I looked at The Times and the Telegraph iPad apps this morning and neither had changed their front pages to reflect the news about Bin Laden. Most days, it does not matter that iPad editions "go to bed" at the same time as the papers. This morning, it made them look like 20th Century relics - and if users are being asked to pay for the apps, as is the case with The Times, they may have some searching questions about what they're getting for their money.