I Heard the News Today, Oh Boy

Understanding the Bin Laden news reports using social networking

Posted May 03, 2011

How did you learn the news about Bin Laden's death?

"I Heard the News Today, Oh Boy"

                                    -The Beatles, "A Day in the Life"

So, when and how did you hear the news about the US capture and killing of al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden? I heard about it late Sunday evening just after the story broke. I have a (questionable?) habit of checking the Facebook news feed on my iPad just before bed. (Hey, I meditate then too, just so you know.) Anyway, I first heard of Bin Laden's demise on my iPad.

My first reaction, I think, was uncertainty. Could this really be? What was the story? Since I was conveniently on my iPad, I searched for news stories. I started with a favorite app of mine called Newsy. I really like Newsy because they use a video format where a news anchor discusses a story from, as their slogan says, "Multiple sources," to get at "the real story." But I saw no news from that evening about Bin Laden, so I searched further. I came upon a site called NewsTsar.com. They had just posted, minutes earlier, the video of President Obama's remarks to the world about the operation that ended Bin Laden's life.

Now, I don't watch television as often as the average person. Usually, I consider this a plus. But in terms of breaking news, I am never particularly likely to be watching live TV when an event happens. In fact, I will virtually never be watching live TV when an event happens.

These events lead me to wonder, how were others hearing the news? How did this differ from the ways people were informed about major world events in the past? So, how did you hear? What did you learn? And where did you look for more information?

The death of Bin Laden obviously brings up memories of 9/11. And specifically, I wonder how learning the news on 9/11 differed from learning the news of Bin Laden's death. Being as we are close to the 10th anniversary of 9/11/01, how has the way we learn about and socially process major news changed?

Speaking of processing, that is another facet of this story that I find interesting as a social psychologist. I noticed the wave of "news feed" reports and comments about Bin Laden on Sunday evening. And then I noticed a shift towards reporting feelings and assessments of the meaning of Bin Laden's death. As a social psychologist who studies media, I am interested in how we are socially processing shared experiences using social media.

I have mentioned my very large (loud, obnoxious? Did I say that? I guess I'm one of them) family on my father's side. (My mother's side is large too, they're just not loud.) I tend to tell family stories, since I have so much family to talk about. So, on this occasion, my smart cousin Janet posted something on Facebook that I found very intriguing. She said that she noticed that women, on the day after the Bin Laden announcement, tended to post a quote from MLK. This quote, and others like it, spoke of not taking pleasure in Bin Laden's death. On the other hand, she noted, men seemed to be making posts that celebrated the death unapologetically. This was not a research project, but an observation, and one that could certainly lead to a research project (in my world, honestly, many things can lead to a research project.)

My point here is that we were processing this meaningful, shared event together. Text posts, twitter tweets, blogs and the like - all the stuff of the read-write Internet - give us a chance to post our attitudes, views and reports in written form. This is new.

How do those posts differ, I wonder, from the statements we make at the proverbial water cooler? Sometimes, I think, we are less bold in person. We also get immediate social cues like facial expressions and verbal reactions to what we say. In that way we may refine our message on the fly. Online, there is also social feedback, but of a different sort. We get direct replies. We get people clicking "like" on our post. Personally, I find that both giving and receiving these likes is so addictive, I often wish I had a "like" button in real life. I could just say it, I suppose, kind of like we might say the Internet meme word "Fail" after a minor and amusing demi-disaster in real time.

You can have a group discussion of sorts about a news event like this. For instance, my dear old friend Dianne, ever the social butterfly, posted on Facebook that she had heard that Bin Laden was dead and then asked what happened. Being connected to a lot of friends online, she knew, I'm sure, that she could get responses. And it is always great to connect with people in other states and around the world and all at the same time. It's an asynchronous kind of chat, but still one that can provide quick feedback from whomever is online.

So, what do you think? How did you learn the news about Bin Laden? What did you notice about the way people talked about the story on Facebook, Twitter and in other public spaces? And how did your experience of the event take shape because of the source you were using for information and comunication?

Oh, I've got to go. I see there's more breaking news about the Bin Laden story (http://www.newstsar.com/). Talk to you about it on Facebook.