By now, we’re all familiar with the story of Keith Urbahn, the former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld who was the very first person in the world to break the news, via Twitter, that the U.S. had killed Osama Bin Laden. (The Rock apparently had the news too, but he was a bit too oblique about it.) I’d venture to say that it was the single-most important tweet ever tweeted; people everywhere have described it spreading “like wildfire.”
Well, what does “wildfire” look like on the Twitterverse? That is, what is the anatomy of a news story rippling across the network? Gilad Lotan and Devin Gaffney, two researchers at Socialflow, which makes Twitter-visualization software, have handily provide a pretty astonishing infographic of how Urbahn’s tweet spread.
As they note, Urbahn wasn’t necessarily the first to suggest that OBL had been killed. But it was his tweet that roiled the Twitterverse. Why him? You wouldn’t have guessed it, based on his previous Twitter activity, that he could impact so many millions. But what he did have was trust: As a Washington insider, he was followed by the right people. His resume–with the connection to Donald Rumsfeld–provided ballast, and heavyweights such as Brian Stelter of The New York Times lent him credence by retweeting him:
But looking at the tweet above, it’s spread doesn’t really look like you’d expect. It’s not a chart of smooth, exponential growth. The news gets taken up in various little pods of people, which sometimes simply sputters out. But occasionally, it takes hold with someone like Stelter and flares to life.
Which isn’t to say that Urbahn’s tweet died out in some quadrants. Rather, I’d argue that it had a limited amount of time as the owner of the OBL news. The minor die-offs you see in his tweet also reflect that the network has become aware of the news through other sources, which may or may not track back to him.