Twitter is a unique tool in that it is one part word of mouth, one part citizen journalism, one part opinion column and one part breaking news. It's not news that Twitter is used to break news. It is still news when Twitter users act as primary sources for events that are far beyond the reach of journalists.
Mashable reported that last night's Bin Laden announcement had the highest sustained Tweet rate ever, an average of 3,440 Tweets per second over the span of last night's events. At the event's peak, there were over 5,000 Tweets flying per second, more than even during the SuperBowl.
Last night, Twitter user Sohaib Athar (@reallyvirtual) unwittingly became a primary source for the Bin Laden takedown event when he reported helicopters in the area of Abbottabad:
This situation is unique because of the dearth of firsthand accounts of the event by news agencies. Athar reports on the lack of power in the area, indicating that there is only power available for communication six hours out of 24. Before journalists knew, before most citizens knew what was going on, Athar was innocently reporting live from the scene.
And without reporters on the ground, news agencies apparently bombarded the citizen Twitter user with requests for interviews and information into the wee hours of the night:
I have written that while Twitter is a powerful tool, it does not cause social change. People and the actions they take are the source of social change. However, in a world in which communication is scarcely powered and primary sources are rare, Twitter is a powerful tool for citizen journalists who may not have access to any other medium; in fact, Athar reports that he doesn't even have a television. In an isolated location with few news sources on site, one lone Tweeter can indeed make and break a powerful news story.
That being said, while this Twitter user proved to be an invaluable source for American news agencies hungry for information, it wasn't the only medium for spreading the news. For example, do you know how I heard the news? I was in the midst of a two-hour aqua workout, no iPhone around. And yet, as I stretched in the hot tub afterwards, a fellow gym-mate asked if I'd heard the news.
Yes, that's right. The biggest Twitter event of 2011, and I heard it from a live person. Good, old-fashioned word of mouth. The story carried because it had power; Twitter was merely an extremely useful tool for relaying the real-time story. The message is more powerful than the medium.