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May 01, 2011

News, Tech Revolutionized In Decade Chasing Bin Laden

On September 11, 2001, I learned of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York by browsing an online finance bulletin board, and turned on CNBC to catch the news as it developed. I spent the day hearing updates on the radio and refreshing the Internet sites that were keeping us updated under heavy load. Tonight's news of Osama Bin Laden's killing came in a new environment, one that works not just faster in its ability to broadcast, but in its reliance on individuals and social connections to break the news.

Tonight, I learned of the news via a Google Talk notification from a friend who served in Special Forces in Afghanistan. I then turned to Twitter to catch the world's instant reaction as they took in the quick updates. Babysitting the kids, I couldn't catch Obama live, but saw his address to the nation via YouTube as it was shared on one of the many social networks I visit regularly. My Facebook news feed was filled with excited updates from friends of all backgrounds, cheering what was very bad news for a small handful of people but great symbolic news for millions.

As with many other acts of history of late, from the Iranian protests in 2009 to more recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, it's become cliche to highlight social media's involvement in the event or its spread. Make no mistake that social media had zero involvement in the killing of Bin Laden. Secret operations stay secret for a reason and are carried out by true professionals willing to risk everything. So you're not going to get yet another story like that from me. But the time lapsed between the event that put Bin Laden on the front page and tonight's announcement which concluded in his obituary saw dramatic changes in the way we discover and share data.

Keep in mind that in the fall of 2001:
  • Google was a private company with Eric Schmidt 6 months into his position of CEO
  • Internet Explorer 5.5 was the dominant Web browser.
  • The iPod was launched in October, to mixed reviews.
  • Blogger was two years old, and 18 months from its sale to Google.
  • Friendster hadn't launched yet.
  • LinkedIn didn't exist.
  • Mark Zuckerberg was in high school.
  • The combined AOL Time Warner was 8 months old.
  • Twitter was two companies away for Ev Williams.
Ten years of progress has delivered us a new world of realtime, a new world of smartphones, a world of mobile applications, a world centered around texting and instant notifications, one where friends can share news from any source to practically any destination, a world where anybody has the chance to have a voice, which can be shared to millions in moments if the content hits the right spot.

As the rare Silicon Valley geek who sports less-techy liberal arts degrees, with mass communications and political science from Cal Berkeley, the intersection of media and politics is always interesting to see unfold, tonight and on any other big night. I loathe those who are going to turn this into their own theater and trade barbs over party affiliations or try to make this about something it's not. I loathe the silly jokes I am already seeing about GPS and location tracking. I hope we can recognize the night in its context and know there will be even more big nights in the many years to come and each of us will find out the news in our own ways - faster and more direct from the trusted sources we choose on platforms we have not yet even dreamed.