Dozens of cell phones held high at the spontaneous celebration at Ground Zero last night.
News of Osama Bin Laden’s death broke last night on Twitter when Keith Urbahn, chief of staff to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted, “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”
This was before the White House confirmed it, before TV reporters went on the air, before Obama addressed the nation—a speech that was immediately YouTubed, of course. Endless jokes ensued, including a crop of “death certificate” cracks. Facebook posts went viral. Twitter exploded. Even though I’m a journalist, I don’t love recording my very first feelings on the Internet… yet I felt an obligation, lest my kids ask me in 20 years, “Mama, what did you first tweet when you found out Bin Laden was dead?” (“I tweeted ‘Not sure what to tweet,’ honey.”) Last night and this morning are reminders not only of how long we’ve been holding our collective breath, but how drastically media has changed since 9/11.
In 2001, there was no YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, smartphones, camera phones, or all even many blogs. If there had been, how would our memories be different? With in-flight Internet, there may have been emails and tweets sent from Flight 93—including, possibly, useful comments from the suicide bombers. There would have been visceral, heartbreaking goodbye letters—videos, even—posted right from the plane and from the twin towers. At Ground Zero and across the country, there would have been terrified Facebook status updates and video clips from camera phones.
Now everyone has the option to contribute publicly, and our gut feelings are forever Google-able. We can see the conversation unfolding in front of us, which is, I guess, weirdly satisfying. Also potentially embarrassing. “Obama bin Laden is dead!” I shouted as I shook my friend awake. Thankfully I didn’t type this mistake and then hit “publish.”
As we obsessively read and chat about the Bin Laden news today, here’s hoping we’ll all step back and take more than 140 characters to revisit our first assumptions.