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Debunking Twitter Triumphalism and a Non-Martin Luther King Jr. Quote: The Best Media Writing of the Week

What the Web Does, and Doesn't Do, During an Event like Osama bin Laden's Death

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Keith Urbahn tweet on Osama bin Laden
Keith Urbahn tweet on Osama bin Laden

By now there's a familiar meta blabber cycle that spins into sloppy motion whenever a big global event happens. The killing of Osama bin Laden was no different. Not long after news broke that President Obama was going to break the news to us Sunday night, we were met with the exultation of tech bloggers and social-media enthusiasts who declared Twitter's triumphant scoopage. The evidence: Someone tweeted a rumor. Those who believe that that constitutes a turning point for media are probably from the same people who thought Twitter should have won a Pulitzer even though it's, um, not a human or even a robot capable of sniffing out a news story. People: it's a channel, part of a medium, that we use to distribute information.

The most ludicrous of these claims were dispatched by my Ad Age colleague Simon Dumenco. Meanwhile, Techcrunch's MG Siegler, writing on his personal site, identified a related and equally aggravating trend of SEO-crazed tech-news sites swooping down on any story that might yield some page views. He drew a line from the pronouncement of the always giddy Mashable that the day after bin Laden's death was its best traffic day ever thanks to the publication's rapid-fire publishing of short posts with the dead terrorist's name in the title, designed to cash in on the global interest in the matter:

It's nothing new, but it's getting worse.

It used to be that the advertising wasn't there to really support these plays long term. But as more money is flooding online to spend post-downturn (as the print world continues to collapse), that 's no longer the case. There will always be someone who advertises against anything that gets pageviews.

The only thing that will stop this is Google taking the same type of action against this gaming as they have against the larger content farms. That line, it seems to me, is quickly blurring. But I just can't see Google doing that .

Exploiting Bin Laden's death is one thing. Just wait until we have a real national tragedy that the tech blogs contort themselves to exploit for the pageviews.

Is there any question we'll see that ? Hell, some of these guys are probably rooting for it.

Perhaps Mashable and their ilk should take some lessons from Sohaib Athar, the sleepless-in-Abbottabad Pakistani who inadvertently tweeted about the helicopters heading to Bin Laden's compound. Mr. Athar's minor media star attracted enough attention that he had to post a (very funny) FAQ on his own website that in part addresses the question of how he plans to not monetize his association with a major news event:

Q: How much are you charging/getting paid for interviews?

A: Nothing. I was trying to avoid the media altogether, but I have tried to respond to the ones that managed to reach me. Even though I cannot really respond to all the interview requests personally, I have replied to as many channels as humanly possible.

I did need to buy a new headset for online calls, so I am Rs. 500 in the negative _;)

Yes, I do know that 'monetization' is an option for me, and I do realize that I have been 'missing out on some big bucks' and not 'milking the media for what it is worth' -- I just don't have the energy or motivation to think in that direction. Or maybe I'm just plain stupid.

More substantive than any Twitter-as-news-breaker palaver was the debate over photos. We saw the White House decline to issue pics of a dead Bin Laden and we saw Reuters publish images of his henchman, lifeless in deep pools of blood. And we saw American media choose to tell the visual story of the reaction here by publishing photos of hootin'-and-hollerin' outside the White House and Ground Zero . The New Yorker's Peter Maass frowned upon these choices, explaining his displeasure in a blog post:

It's justifiable to have a drink to celebrate bin Laden's killing or remember a loved one who was lost in the wars since 9/11, but the frat-house essence of these gatherings seems to have more to do with kegs than flags. It's safe to assume the quieter (and older) majority reacted with thoughts and feelings far more complex and dignified than a collegian squealing, as one of Geraldo's kids did, "It's awesome, finally the guy's dead!"

The media error of substituting a photogenic minority for a less-photogenic multitude is common. It occurred, for example, back in 2003, when a very small number of excitable Iraqis helped Marines topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. (I wrote about that event for The New Yorker.) The reaction of the majority of Iraqis to the American-led invasion was far more layered and sophisticated than what we saw from the handful of statue-topplers...

The visuals were fantastic; the journalism, less so.

One thing that Twitter triumphalists are usually less eager to crow about is the platform's handiness for spreading misinformation. The Atlantic's Megan McArdle went all Encyclopedia Brown on a quotation wrongly attributed to Martin Luther King in the wake of bin Laden's death. It turned out that part of the quote was indeed from MLK, but it had been yoked to a status update of a 24-year-old Facebook user and then that hybrid was shot across the web by a famous magician. You can't make this stuff up!

At some point, someone cut and pasted the quote, and -- for reasons that I, appropriately chastened, will not speculate on -- stripped out the quotation marks. Eventually, the mangled quotation somehow came to the attention of Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame. He tweeted it to his 1.6 million Facebook followers, and the rest was internet history. Twenty-four hours later, the quote brought back over 9,000 hits on Google.

The quote also went viral on Twitter, and since the 140-character limit precluded quoting the whole thing, people stripped it down to the most timely and appropriate part: the fake quote. That's where I saw it.

The speed of dissemination is breathtaking: mangled to meme in less than two days. Also remarkable is how defensive people got about the quote -- though admirably, not Penn Jillette, who posted an update as soon as it was called to his attention. The thread for my post now has over 600 comments, and by my rough estimate, at least a third of them are people posting that I need to print a retraction, because of the non-fake part of the quotation. But I didn't quote that part; I was only interested in the too-timely bit I'd seen twittered.

We end with a very different kind of death, that of Vancouver husband, father and blogger Derek Miller, who succumbed to cancer this week at age 41. He had asked that upon his passing a final blog post be published on his site, PenMachine. "The Last Post" is a quietly exceptional piece of writing, a loving, grateful signing off to the world. It also manages to be everything the screaming about Twitter's place in our world is not: an unimpeachable demonstration of the benefits of a democratized publishing world that gives a voice to anyone who wants one:

I haven't gone to a better place, or a worse one. I haven't gone anyplace, because Derek doesn't exist anymore. As soon as my body stopped functioning, and the neurons in my brain ceased firing, I made a remarkable transformation: from a living organism to a corpse, like a flower or a mouse that didn't make it through a particularly frosty night. The evidence is clear that once I died, it was over.

So I was unafraid of death -- of the moment itself -- and of what came afterwards, which was (and is ) nothing. As I did all along, I remained somewhat afraid of the process of dying, of increasing weakness and fatigue, of pain, of becoming less and less of myself as I got there. I was lucky that my mental faculties were mostly unaffected over the months and years before the end, and there was no sign of cancer in my brain -- as far as I or anyone else knew.

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