While "The Donald" and his hairdo have done their best to snag headlines in the past few weeks, few would argue that the royal wedding and Sunday night's assassination of Osama bin Laden have been the top headlines. High-profile events like these (not a gazillionaire's hair) and the trail of metrics left behind tell an interesting tale about how people are increasingly getting their news from non-traditional sources.
As smartphone adoption continues to rise, real-time crowd-sourced reporting via websites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, as well as text messaging, generate the kinds of data traffic that carrier execs see as a double-edged sword. While more data means more dollars, sudden spikes in traffic can also stress the network. Add those following the news as it happens to those reporting events as they happen, and the results are server-crippling, network-breaking, website-downing storms of traffic.
Messaging is perhaps one of the more direct gauges of how people are responding to an event. Increasingly, it's a mobile user's thumbs that are set ablaze in light of big news as opposed to the "days of old" when big news sent mouths flapping in an old-fashioned game of telephone.
Sybase365 reports that SMS traffic in the U.S. spiked 18 percent in less than 30 minutes as people informed each other on the news of bin Laden's death. The most significant spikes occurred in Asia, where it was daytime when people learned of the news.
But it wasn't just texts that shot up following bin Laden's death. Twitter PR tweeted that the service had reached a record of more than 5,000 tweets per second at the beginning and end of President Obama's speech announcing that bin Laden had been killed.
What is perhaps most interesting about the kinds of granular metrics released after big events is the picture they paint of an entirely new paradigm for how people get their news. Thirty-two percent of 18,000 respondents to a poll at Mashable.com said they had heard about Osama bin Laden's death from Twitter. Twelve percent said they heard the news via a text message.
"With each major world event the method by which the public receives breaking news has evolved into a more immediate and more mobile means of communication," says Dave Karow, senior product manager at Keynote Systems, which monitors and reports mobile web metrics in its Mobile Web News & Portal Index.
Karow says the baseball game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, which was in progress at the time of Obama's announcements, was a close-up study in smartphone power.
"Within moments of the news breaking, it seemed as if every fan was within a seat or two of someone with a smartphone who had the news. The crowd spontaneously erupted in a cheer of 'USA, USA,'" much to the surprise of the players and officials who had no idea what had just happened.
It was just a decade ago that people received news of 9/11 via phone or email and rushed to the nearest television screen for more information. "When Michael Jackson died, people rushed to their Web browsers to learn more," Karow says. "[Sunday night] people everywhere turned first to their smartphones for breaking news about the killing of Osama bin Laden."
That onslaught of mobile Web traffic was enough to seriously challenge major mobile news sites, many of which engineered a partial recovery by sending mobile users to their primary website.
Keynote found that at the peak of the initial wave between 7:30 and 8 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday, May 1, the Keynote Systems Web News Index (not the mobile index), which visits over a dozen sites from 10 different U.S. cities, observed that it took about 10 percent longer on average to display a page on the news sites. It also recorded that 8 percent of all requests failed, while several sites took a pretty big initial hit as millions of users flooded them.
On the mobile side, the Keynote Systems Mobile News Index saw slowdowns of approximately 25 percent in response time during the first hour of the word spreading. Download speed climbed from an average of 14.45 seconds the same period on the prior day to 18 seconds, with a 10 percent page failure rate on average. This was up from just under a 2 percent failure rate during the same period the prior day.