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Bin Laden, Twitter, and the frenzy of noise

There were unparalleled levels of raw emotion pouring through Twitter when it was announced that terror leader Osama bin Laden had been killed. There was also noise and confusion like never before.

It's difficult for the columns on a Twitter client app to resonate with emotion, but late Sunday evening, as the news unfolded that U.S. special forces had killed al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, they certainly did.

There were, at the beginning and end of President Obama's speech announcing the victory, 4,000 "tweets" per second, an estimate that the company increased to over 5,000 on Monday morning. Twitter also elaborated further and said that it experienced its highest sustained rate of tweets ever, with an average of 3,000 tweets per second from 10:45 p.m. to 2:20 a.m. Eastern time.

The meat of these tweets was an overwhelming, high-energy blend of excitement, confusion, speculation, and armchair observation; side-by-side in anyone's Twitter stream might have been a snarky post about Donald Trump wanting to see bin Laden's death certificate, alongside an elegiac 140 characters about where that user had been when the 9/11 attacks took place. There were many retweets of the message that started it all, from Keith Urbahn, chief of staff to former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Then, maybe, there was a summary of what was being said on CNN. Television news reports--or live streams of them online--were still on.

Some say Twitter's become a replacement for traditional news. Well, it's obviously conditioned many people to believe they're entitled to an unprecedented flood of immediate news whenever they want it. But a thirst for immediate and fast-updating news long predates Twitter, and conversely, what Sunday's events really tell us is that responsible handling of the raw breaking news is more important than ever.

When September 11 happened, I was a senior in high school about a 90-minute drive from New York City. The school called a fire drill to get all students into one place in order to make a basic announcement, but we were then told to please go back to class and attempt to proceed with the day as normally as possible. This did not go over so well with a few students (myself included), who went straight to the computer lab and turned to the Internet to learn more.

This was a Web before Twitter, Facebook, or news aggregators; Google inserted hard-coded links to breaking news stories on its home page because its search results wouldn't be updated quickly enough. The problem was that news sites' Web servers had tanked; I couldn't load The New York Times, Washington Post, or Yahoo, and local news outlets didn't seem to have anything beyond the most basic information about what happened. The best we could get, at least for a nerve-wracking hour or two, was "open threads" on fringe political forums like Democratic Underground (on the left) and Free Republic (on the right), where the forums' dedicated political junkies were posting anything they'd heard, or anything they thought they'd heard.

It was messy, and some of it undoubtedly was inaccurate. When news sites' servers recovered, we switched right back to them.

These days, like so many people entrenched in the media and technology industries, my media consumption habits are fragmented by screen, by operating system, and by the neatly defined boundaries of each little app on my smartphone. On Sunday night I was sprawled on my living room couch watching AMC's crime drama "The Killing," and probably would've missed the entire news blitz about bin Laden's death--I was planning to go straight to sleep afterward--if I hadn't happened to pick up my iPhone during a commercial break and opened the browser to Google News. Already rising to the top ranks was the report that President Obama would be making an unexpected announcement about national security late on a Sunday night, which instantly made me wonder whether something terrible had happened.

The obvious next step: Check Twitter. Then the push notification for somebody's Foursquare check-in spoiled the surprise as I was opening the Twitter for iPhone app. Someone was announcing that she'd arrived at a bar, and appended "First cocktail of the post-Osama bin Laden era." Then the flood of tweets--elation, shock, snark, remembrance--took over the screen of my phone. There were some "facts" that were quickly disproven, like that bin Laden had been dead for a week (nope) and that he'd been killed directly in the Pakistani city of Islamabad (no, he was about 40 miles away). It grew so overwhelming that I turned to the comparatively civilized world of cable news, brash titles and pulsing animated tickers and all.

The town in Pakistan where it all happened. Google Maps

There's something extremely impressive about what can come out of the frenzy of noise that's stirred up whenever a major news event catches the eye of the Twittering hordes. Among the resources tweeted were links to live camera feeds of New York's Times Square as it filled with cheering crowds, Twitpics snapped of what was going on outside the White House or the former World Trade Center site, links to Google Earth satellite photographs of Abbottabad--the Pakistani town that housed the compound where bin Laden had been hiding--and the tweets from a Twitter user in that town who described hearing the helicopters used in the raid.

But the overload of news surrounding the speculation and finally the acknowledgment of bin Laden's death just underscored that unless you're the kind of person who craves a from-all-angles barrage of information, some of which will be dubious, getting your news straight from Twitter can be a stressful process, a display of figurative neon lights blinking out of control. These are the news fiends who want access to read and re-broadcast the true insiders, the Keith Urbahns, the people close to a situation who are now just as likely to break news as any major press outlet will be. The people who follow them and obsessively retweet form a "curator class" of people who, whether they're employed in the media or not, have seen their Twitter accounts become must-follows for employees at the news outlets themselves. Those outlets then get to fact-checking, tracking down the origins of claims and speculations, verifying those Google Earth images for use on-air, and expanding the real information beyond its 140-character confines.

The process of gathering and reporting the news has always been more complicated than it ever looks on paper or onscreen, but it's never been this complicated--and the public has never been able to see as much of it as they can now. What's liberating about it all is that everyday Internet users have the option to choose which field they want to play on, so to speak. You can customize TweetDeck with a half dozen columns, set up breaking-news alerts on your cell phone, and get ready to start hitting that "retweet" button. As many people in New York and D.C. did when they heard about the celebratory rallies at the White House and outside the former World Trade Center site, you can run outside with that camera phone in hand. But for those concerned about misinformation, or lacking the desire to dive into raw Twitter material and feel like they're a part of the news itself, responsible and carefully informed mainstream news takes on a new and crucial role.

News outlets shouldn't feel threatened by the Twitter effect; they should feel empowered because their job's gotten a whole lot bigger and more complicated. We need the noise, but more than ever, we need the signal.