Amy Winehouse: how twitter broke the news

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Stylist Team
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News of Amy Winehouse’s tragic death hit Twitter 20 minutes after she was found. Stylist profiles its rise from social network to ground-breaking news source.

Where were you when you heard the news about Amy Winehouse? Millions of us were on Twitter. Forty minutes before the story was reported on mainstream news websites and TV channels, and within 20 minutes of the police being called, Twitter users had already been retweeting early tributes to the 27-year-old singer.

“Amy Winehouse” rapidly became one of Twitter’s trending topics, representing nearly 10% of all tweets worldwide – with approximately 20 million people communicating with each other about her death. As they heard, via Twitter, people around the world googled her name for confirmation.

Yet for that crucial 40 minutes, there was nothing. The search terms “Amy Winehouse”, “Amy Winehouse dead” and “Amy Winehouse death” quickly became the top three Google searches, pushing searches on Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breivik down to number four. As one Twitter user noted, “It’s never a good sign when someone’s name starts trending out of the blue on Twitter, is it?” It was only when news of the singer’s death began appearing on the BBC’s news feed that fans truly believed the sad news. One tweet read: “BBC reporting Amy’s death via PA newswire. So that’s that, then.” Nevertheless, the news of her death was revealed on Twitter first.

Power of tweets

Today, even the most vehement luddites and staid media purists are forced to admit that sites such as Twitter are part of the future of news reporting. But will we really experience the 21st century through misspelled retweets on our iPhones, PCs and iPads? Not necessarily. Instead, experts predict that the 21st century woman will get her information via an amalgamation of old and new media, both relying on each other, feeding back into each other and – at times – holding each other to account.

“When you get a new form of media, people are very fast to pronounce the death of older media distributors, like newspapers,” says Ian Reeves, of the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent. “In reality, people in publishing are adapting their business models and working patterns to incorporate new media forms. Both old media and new media have lessons to learn from each other, and they’re both needed.”

There’s no denying that today the traditional news outlets are relying on Twitter as a source. When the BBC and the Daily Mail began reporting on the death of Winehouse, it was with the help of two resources: a police statement and tributes on Twitter.

Amy Winehouse’s sad demise is by no means the first story that Twitter “broke”. On 16 January 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger emergencylanded US Airways flight 1549 safely in New York’s Hudson River. The news was all over Twitter 15 minutes before the mainstream media outlets. The first recorded tweet about the crash came from @Manolantern (Jim Hanrahan), four minutes after the plane plummeted, who tweeted: “I’ve just watched a plane crash into the Hudson river in Manhattan”. Some of the 155 passengers took to Twitter to reassure family and friends that they were safe, even before they had left the jet via the inflatable emergency chutes. Images swiftly followed. Janis Krums was on a nearby passenger ferry when the plane landed. He took a shot on his iPhone and posted it to before helping passengers to safety. “There’s a plane in the Hudson,” Krums tweeted. “I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” While Krums went offline and helped the survivors, nearly 40,000 web users viewed the photo in those first four hours. People filled 100 screens with responses to Krums’ Twitter account, congratulating him on his foray into citizen journalism.

There’s no denying that today the traditional news outlets are relying on Twitter as a source

Thousands more – including mainstream news sites – created links to the image, causing to crash. While other sites – Flickr, YouTube and Facebook – were similarly abuzz, Twitter inarguably led the way. While keywords such as “plane”, “Hudson” and “crash” were top of Twitter’s trends page, Google’s similar trending service didn’t register these terms until 90 minutes later.

Since the Hudson landing, Twitter has also played a vital role in the news reporting of the Arab uprisings since December 2010, the January 2011 Mumbai bombings and the death of Osama Bin Laden on 2 May, 20 minutes before the White House issued an official statement. (Keith Urbahn, one-time chief of staff for the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted: “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”)

When Twitter launched in 2006, many of us thought it was just another social networking fad. If our needs were met by Facebook or LinkedIn, why did we need another? The tipping point for Twitter’s popularity is identified as the 2007 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, which saw Twitter usage triple from 20,000 tweets per day to 60,000, after 60-inch plasma screens streamed the live Twitter messages of festival goers and performers. Their marketing strategist knew not to underestimate the desire for 15 seconds of fame.

A popular force

Twitter was soon dubbed “the SMS of the internet”, with its soaring popularity, in part, due to the fact that celebrities embraced Twitter in a way they never did with Facebook or MySpace – voicing their opinions, bad mouthing other stars, and announcing new projects. Yet despite getting the blessing of many A-listers, Twitter was still a long way from earning the respect of some reporters and newsreaders. The thought of Jon Snow reading Twitter feeds on the Arab uprisings, or getting viewers to follow him on Twitter, seemed laughable.

The Guardian writer Sali Hughes, who has 20,586 followers on Twitter, identifies the turning point as the Trafigura scandal of 2009. On 12 October 2009 The Guardian was banned from reporting the contents of a parliamentary question relating to a toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast in 2006. Despite this gagging order, the name of the London-based oil trader, Trafigura, was trending on Twitter the following day. “Around the same time, Jan Moir’s comments about the deat of Stephen Gately in her Daily Mail column caused widespread disgust on Twitter, and this was the moment people realised that it could be a medium for political activism,” Hughes says. “Twitter had come of age.”

Today, there’s no arguing with Twitter’s status as a vital news resource. More than 200 million tweets are sent every day, and Twitter is currently seeing more than 40% growth in mobile usage every quarter. Every newsreader at ITN is instructed to set up a Twitter account; any serious news journalist needs to be active on Twitter. Yet we still don’t quite know how to label this new medium, which doesn’t fit into any of the media categories we’re used to. Cue a moral panic about a dystopian future where information is spewed out in a series of reactionary, poorly spelled outbursts; a world where Twitter-users know about Amy Winehouse’s death before her own father (he was still on a plane to New York as the news went viral).

However, any predictions that Twitter is sounding the death knell of traditional journalism are misguided. “Twitter is fast and efficient, but it’s not reliable,” says Hughes. “I’ll always check reputable news outlets like the BBC and Reuters to corroborate a story, until then it is pure speculation.”

Twitter has been called many things: dumb, the harbinger of a new age of citizen journalism, a forum for vacuous attention-seekers, revolutionary. It’s also been called irresponsible – when the super-injunctions granted to high profile footballers were flouted in May – and it’s been called journalism. Twitter is in fact, unquestionably, a fantastic raw data source. Tweets need interpretation and verification before becoming reliable. Any journalist, or thinking person, threatened by Twitter is erroneous. In this new age of information we’ll all need to be more discerning readers and we’ll need new high journalistic standards. The information is coming in faster and thicker than ever before. It’s what we do with it that counts.

Words: Anna Hart. Illustration: Patrick George. Main picture credit: Rex Features