Social Flow, a startup social media tracking company in New York City, performed a fascinating analysis of how Twitter factored into the breaking news around the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy SEALs on May 1, 2011. On that day, from 4:00-4:30 p.m. ET (approximately), the Navy’s elite teams invaded the Pakistani compound. According to Monday Note, at 7:24 p.m. ET former Navy intelligence officer Keith Urbahn, currently Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff (not a typo — the former Defense secretary still has one) shot this tweet:

Urbahn’s trust network — the social connections based on friendship, acquaintance, and professional respect — was the perfect amplifier for this message, even if his followers numbered at the time at 1,016. Within one minute, Urbahn’s tweet was retweeted 80 times, once by New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter, a tweet which unleashed another powerful information cascade. By the time President Obama spoke to a television audience of 56.5 million, more than 15 million tweets had been exchanged, the vast majority of it triggered by Urbahn’s single initial tweet.

With one tweet, an individual in a relatively obscure trust network had achieved an audience more than 25% as large as the audience nearly all television networks could achieve by interrupting programming, having 30-60 minutes of ramp-up coverage, and paying thousands of professionals millions of dollars in salaries.

As the analysts at Social Flow put it:

Keith Urbahn wasn’t the first to speculate Bin Laden’s death, but he was the one who gained the most trust from the network. And with that, the perfect situation unfolded, where timing, the right social-professional networked audience, along with a critically relevant piece of information led to an explosion of public affirmation of his trustworthiness.

The proliferation of devices and data integrations has made it so that many trust networks are alive, deeply embedded, and functioning at all hours (it will have occurred to most that Osama Bin Laden specifically sought to keep his trust network secret, going so far as to not have Internet connectivity in his hideout).

For scholarly publishers seeking to get their information out on behalf of authors and brands, not taking advantage of a trust relationship driven by connectivity with your audience seems more and more like a profound mistake. Discovering the nodes carrying your information outward is probably vital to maintaining your information’s prominence. Who is your publication’s Keith Urbahn? It’s probably not who you think it is.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "Tweeting Bin Laden — The Power of a Single Tweet and Serial Trust Networks"

I read about this story and agree it is fascinating. But I am not so sure about your take-home message for publishers. For example I read about none of this on Twitter nor did I care to. I heard about it first by good old word of mouth and went to a “trusted old media” site to check it out (aka the BBC). Then, I waited until the next day’s papers and journalists/commentators (print Times and online RSS subscriptions – personalised by me). I imagine that at least some consumers do/did the same as me than tried to follow it all via Twitter – it did not take long at all for journalists and other writers to catch up and for me it was worth the wait to save all that twitter detection.

The whole Twitter/Bin Laden thing was interesting, but I’m not sure if it’s as incredibly significant as has been reported. While some are claiming that this is a watershed moment where Twitter replaces old media, others have pointed out that in fact, Urbahn’s tweet was based on a tip from a television producer–no old media, no tweet. As the linked TechCrunch article above points out:

Twitter is not in and of itself a news source…Twitter does not supplant other media, it amplifies it…Twitter also drives people to traditional media. Last night, news that the President was going to make a surprise announcement certainly drove people to TV. For instance, I first heard about the news conference on Twitter, and then I turned on CNN. Much of what people were Tweeting was what they were hearing on TV…

The use of Twitter to drive people to more traditional media is really the key to what’s meaningful here for scholarly publishers.

Definitely an interesting phenomenon, but I have to ask, did having the news one hour earlier have any substantial effect on your life? Why was it so important you had this news immediately? Is this just more of the ego-driven, Pokemon-style game that much of Twitter devolves into–I know something you don’t, I’m at some meeting or location and you’re not, aren’t I awesome and better than you?

Personally, I was asleep, and not finding out the news until the next morning (and not from Twitter) doesn’t seem to have had any negative effect on my life.

Agree. That was the point of my post — Twitter and social awareness in general are keys to prominence, which is often a key to success for a publisher.

As for “information one-upsmanship,” we all participate in that. It’s part of the branding of information (I’ll see your “Journal of Interesting Niche Information” and raise you a “Science”), and knowledge is power to some extent. I see nothing wrong or abnormal about that. In fact, I think it’s generally commendable.

I’d argue that in most Twitter cases, it’s less the branding of information than it is the branding of the individual imparting the information.

An article appearing in Science tells me something about the information itself (it passed muster with Science’s editors). “I’m at Starbucks” tells me less about Starbucks and more about the person tweeting (that they’re a douche).

I wasn’t saying that a tweet imparted branding, only that we all compete for information hegemony at some level, and in some settings, brands are used. I completely agree that Twitter is representative of some form of trust network, but there is also branding going on there. I follow some people I only know by reputation.

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