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Bin Laden news reinforces Twitter's strength, limitations

When President Obama spoke about Osama bin Laden's death Sunday, it was an hour of unprecedented tweeting.
When President Obama spoke about Osama bin Laden's death Sunday, it was an hour of unprecedented tweeting.
  • By some measures, these last four days have been the proudest in Twitter's history
  • Twitter is just 5 years old and acts like it with tantrums, fabrications and repetition
  • It broke the bin Laden death news but also spread misinformation at lightning speed
  • Twitter Inc.
  • Politics
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Editor's note: Chris Taylor is San Francisco bureau chief of Mashable, a popular tech-news blog and a content partner.

(CNN) -- By some measures, these past four days have been the proudest in Twitter's history.

The news of Osama bin Laden's death was credibly confirmed first on Twitter, before President Barack Obama spoke.

Then a random IT contractor in Pakistan, realizing he had unknowingly tweeted about the raid on bin Laden's compound, became an international celebrity.

Then Twitter announced that the hour in which the president spoke was an hour of unprecedented tweeting, with 12.4 million tweets sent.

And yet there was one odd omission in all this good news for the company: Bin Laden's death did not move the needle on Twitter's record for the most tweets sent simultaneously.

So what holds that record? What great news event could be so important as to put the decade's biggest story in the shadows? Answer: New Year's Eve in Japan, which clocked in at more than 6,000 tweets per second.

It seems a perfect metaphor for everything that's right and wrong with the microblogging service. On the one hand, it has grown up fast and strong, becoming a respected news delivery service in its own right, chattering about bin Laden's death before the TV networks would even speculate that's what the news was.

On the other hand, it can sometimes seem highly regressed, full of messages that read like the products of 6,000 drunken New Year's Eve tweets.

Twitter is just been around five years, after all. And in the aggregate, it seems a lot like a 5-year-old -- prone to tantrums, spinning wild fabrications and repeating the same short sentences over and over. You could be forgiven for feeling uneasy that this anarchic toddler of a service has become part of the fabric of journalism.

That kind of dysfunctional ambivalence is something you find writ large in Twitter's story at the moment. It's a cultural phenomenon, but it doesn't make a profit yet. Founder Jack Dorsey returned to the company at a crucial moment, except he's still focused on his next venture, Square.

And the service he invented spreads both truth and disinformation at equal speed. As Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore famously said, "I learned that Michael Jackson died on Twitter. I also learned that Justin Bieber died on Twitter."

We saw that in the wake of bin Laden's demise, when a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. -- saying he wouldn't rejoice in the death of a single enemy -- got retweeted like crazy. Just one problem: MLK never said it. It was fabricated by a user on Facebook (there's more than enough disinformation for both social networks), and quickly hopped the barrier into Twitter.

And the original bin Laden tweet that preceded Obama's announcement? It came from Donald Rumsfeld's former chief of staff -- someone who might normally be considered the president's political opponent.

But the majority of Twitter users didn't know nor care who he was, and his statement was given little vetting.

We can expect, as the 2012 election heats up, that some campaigns will be tempted to unleash the power of Twitter's misinformation echo chamber on each other. You ain't seen nothing yet -- and you'll be best off turning to a second source for confirmation of anything you read on the service.

So as much as the bin Laden news was a confirmation that Twitter has arrived, it also revealed its limitations. In recent days, I've seen a number of power users talk with surprise that their favorite service couldn't supply all their news needs on Sunday night -- that they had to turn on a TV or go to a reputable news site.

Here's what one friend of mine, a CEO who obsessively tweets from multiple accounts, had to say in the wake of the news: "Truth be told, Twitter can't go into depth about a story, and people want depth -- the where, how, what, when and the intimate details of the WHY."

She wrote that in a screed that was far longer than 140 characters -- and posted it on Facebook.


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