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Obama inauguration has Internet all a-Twitter

Social networking sites change the way Americans experience historic events

January 20, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - For decades, people sat passively in front of television sets to watch historic events like the moon landing and President John F. Kennedy's funeral. That wasn't the case today.

The historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president had people flocking to social networking sites, like Twitter and Tumblr, to comment, share and take in the reaction of people around the world. Instead of sitting and watching, people could be virtual historians, reporting in from the actual event or recounting reactions around the globe.

At its peak today, Twitter had five times more tweets per second than it usually has, according to Biz Stone, co-founder of the microblogging site.

"This gives people a way to communicate and be a part of something in a bigger way," said Caroline Dangson, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. "For people who were at the inauguration, they're able to be sort of a reporter. It empowers people to tell the story. The fact that they can publish it immediately has made it really fascinating."

A user going by 'edorr' had this to say about the inauguration in a Twitter tweet: "Incredibly moving experience being on the mall for the swearing in. Crowds -- slow moving." Another user, called 'bwingenroth,' had problems getting news into cyberspace. "The National Mall needed more bandwidth. Couldn't get data in or out."

Stone reported that Twitter held up well under the barrage of traffic, though some users experienced a two-to-five-minute delay in receiving updates during the height of traffic.

"We have a sense that Twitter is not about the triumph of technology, it's about the triumph of humanity," wrote Stone in an e-mail to Computerworld. "We see this in the way folks use Twitter during emergencies to self-organize and help one another. And we see it during important, massively shared events like today's historic inauguration. Our role is to provide a more efficient way for people to communicate and then step out of the way and let it happen."

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., called today a watershed moment in social networking.

"We've always been our own historians," said Olds. "Every time we talk about events, we're putting our own spin on history. The difference now is that we each have the ability to put our spin out to a worldwide audience. These personal histories can be viewed, aggregated, and eventually analyzed by anyone who is interested in getting a true sense of how people perceived particular events while they were happening. We haven't had that ability before. It will be interesting to see if and how real historians use this vast collection of first-person narratives in their own works."

Dangson said she came away from today's experience, for which she tuned into to the CNN/Facebook online collaboration, feeling that people felt more connected today.

"There were so many sources of information about the event," she added. "I would say people feel more connected because they're able to comment and share information. They're not passively watching. How we experience media now is very different."

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