So, Osama Bin Laden is dead. It’s old news, really. And, to be honest, if you’re not American, or Muslim, or Julius Malema the whole thing has been a little anti-climactic. Well, it has.
There are no dramatic images, no accompanying sense of a world irrevocably changed; it just happened.
Perhaps, though, the lack of drama (certainly half way around the world) can be attributed to the manner in which the news spread. In September 2001, we were glued to our TVs as the horror unfolded in real-time. Every news channel in the world covered it. We were spellbound by the cloud of ash and soot that swallowed the city and couldn’t look away as people leapt desperately from the collapsing buildings.
Over the last ten years or so the way in which we consume news has changed. We still sit transfixed in front of our TVs to watch royal weddings, but we tend to keep abreast of what happens internationally online. If you want to catch a breaking story the best places to look are Twitter, Facebook and Google.
Danny Sullivan compared Google’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks and its coverage of Osama Bin Laden’s death. As he notes, in September 2001 Google News didn’t exist, so the search giant had a hard time delivering news as it happened. The mighty G had to resort to manipulating its search page so that people would be aware of the attacks.
Hours after the attack, it was still delivering results about the splendid views from the towers, albeit with a news update bar highlighted at the top of the page.
What a difference a decade makes
The scene is completely different now, of course.
Now we have Google News, Bing News, Yahoo News, Twitter, Facebook and assorted feeds pushing news at us so that we don’t miss a thing. You’d almost have to be under a rock to have a massive event pass you by. (Author’s note: I was almost under a rock. I’d travelled all night on the 1st and slept most of the 2nd, so it was only when I went online on the evening of the 2nd that I saw the biggest villain of the 21st century was dead.)
Twitter users are so on the ball that one person tweeted an account of the attack, albeit unwittingly and from a safe distance.
Sullivan examines how Google (and other search engines) kept up with Bin Laden’s death in some detail, so I’m not going to repeat it all here.
Instead, I want to look the impact Bin Laden’s death had on the internet and digital world at large, and what happened in the aftermath.
No fail whale but CNN breaks down
When we see how people responded to the news of Bin Laden’s death online, my statement that it was anti-climactic starts to ring true.
According to the Huffington Post (which cited stats from Akamai), the most anticipated death in the world didn’t even crack the top 15 news events ever. Apparently four of the top five positions are occupied by soccer-related news – 24 June set the record for the most page views per minute (over 10 million) during several World Cup matches and the epic Wimbledon tennis match between Isner and Mahut.
You might have laughed at the millions of people who followed the royal wedding, but people were more interested in the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s nuptials than Bin Laden’s death. Even the US mid-term elections in 2010 garnered more page views.
Twitter recorded a massive 5106 tweets per second (which a couple of years ago would have brought on the floating blue whale), but even that pales in comparison to the 6939 tweets in one second on New Year’s Eve in Japan. Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami hold second place with 5530 tweets. But Bin Laden’s death has nabbed at least one record online: that of the highest rate of sustained tweets ever. And, it managed to break CNN’s mobile website.
Facebook is also in on the action with an Osama Bin Laden is Dead page that just happened to go viral.
My feeling is that while people rush to find out news and share it online, virtual reality provides a cocoon which effectively shields them from any real horror. If there had been a YouTube video of his death, things might have been a little different, and the online masses might have waited a little longer before taking the Mickey out of the situation (the operative word being “might”).
Laugh and the world laughs with you
Instead we have no end of satirical, cynical, biting, funny and ridiculous memes doing the rounds.
For instance, you won’t believe the number of professional news agencies and respected reporters who managed to announce the death of Obama Bin Laden, and even, in some cases, the death of President Obama. So, we get:
We get the digs at ex-president George W Bush:
And, of course, the jokes at Bin Laden’s expense:
And my personal favourite:
Kind of makes you appreciate the internet all over again, doesn’t it?
It must be made clear, however, that in no way do I take the matter lightly. Bin Laden did an evil thing and had the potential to bring even more evil into the world. I don’t believe that we should mourn his passing.
Instead I think we should mourn our lost sensitivity and skewed priorities – after having a laugh, of course.