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.
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.