It was surreal. Our big family dinner was winding down when I received a text message from a friend that read, “White house is reporting osama bin laden is dead.” Apparently, it had been reported just moments before. Within minutes, my brother-in-law confirmed the story when his Twitter account alerted him to it. Everyone whipped out their phones to substantiate the news and the TV was turned on shortly after.
As we sat watching the talking heads, I looked around the room to discover just about every person holding a phone. (Mine would have been in my hand too if my niece hadn’t been using it to play Doodle Destroy.) As the newscasters attempted to fill the air time with what little information they had before the President spoke, each person in the room offered their own reports of friends’ Facebook posts or Twitter news feeds. At one point, someone was even correcting the newscasters who erroneously reported that Bin Laden had been killed a week before. It was like each of us was working for the Associated Press.
It is shocking to witness over the course of only a decade how drastically our modes of processing information have changed. I think back to 9/11 and remember being tuned into the television broadcast for hours on end watching the same horrifying images repeat over and over again. I learned about the details with everyone else watching the same broadcast and it was our primary source of information. We were limited to knowing only what the major networks knew.
My younger brother was in high school at the time and because cell phones weren’t so “smart” yet, his only information was whatever the school deemed appropriate to tell the students. When the news about Bin Laden broke, he was waiting to leave for L.A. when he read the breaking news on his cell. This morning his Facebook status read, “Nothing feels better than being on a plane waiting for takeoff and announcing to the person next to you that Osama bin laden was killed, then watching the news quickly spread throughout the plane.”
The availability of social media and news to our mobile devices not only fuels the speed with which we receive information, share our thoughts and debate our perspectives, but makes us hungry for information that is renewed and updated on a continuous basis.
After I finally wrestled my phone away from my 6 year old niece, I updated my Facebook status with a simple thank you to everyone who had supported our troops all along the way. Anyone who knows me would understand that it was a tribute to my husband, who spent our first year of marriage in Iraq, and each person who supported him and his battle buddies while he was away. I still remember signing up for MySpace before he left so I could read the blog he occasionally posted to. At the time, I remember how silly it felt to ask him to be my friend online. Six years later, we are clearly labeled as husband and wife on Facebook while MySpace balances on the brink of extinction.
I cannot imagine what it was like to be a military wife during previous wars – waiting months at a time to hear from your spouse. Even when a letter arrived they must have wondered in the back of their minds whether they were still safe – knowing full well that the letter had been sealed weeks or possibly months prior.
I was lucky. My husband usually called me once a week from a Pay As You Go Phone. Even when he would relay stories about a particularly nerve racking foot patrol or worse, being trapped in a Humvee when a mortar detonated nearby, I was thankful. I could tell myself, “Yes, he was blown up today… Yes, he cracked a couple ribs and can’t hear so well at the moment… but the fact that he’s telling me this on the phone means he’s safe right now. If I saw something terrifying on the news, I could even text him and receive a response back by the end of the day assuring me of his safety.
Mobility is now crucial to communication in that it fuels the speed with which we process what’s happening around us. With that comes impatience for information in its traditional mediums. The television and radio alone do not satisfy us. No longer will we patiently wait for a newscaster to relay a story nor will we tolerate misinformation while we hold a mobile fact checker in our hands.
It shapes how we interpret the events unfolding around us. It is in notable moments like September 11th or Osama Bin Laden’s death that create benchmarks in our minds. While grim, they offer a telling comparison of how changed our lives have become due not only to social media but its immediate accessibility. When the news is momentous enough it spreads like wildfire on social networks and before you know it there are crowds of people gathering in Times Square or in front of the White House.
We don’t just watch the news anymore. We participate. We determine what’s newsworthy. Last night, it became clear that our first resource was our cell phones and that the television was secondary. Social Media is clearly in the driver’s seat.