While you were sleeping, the Boston area transformed into a Michael Bay movie -- with Twitter users writing the script.
Perhaps the most intense live tweeting session ever began around 10:00 p.m. Thursday. An armed robbery at a Cambridge, Mass., 7-11 was followed by robberies at two nearby gas stations. At the time, these robberies received sparse attention online, beyond the interest generated among police scanner junkies.
But less than an hour later, a Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) officer investigating a disturbance on campus was shot multiple times. As the alert went out via MIT's emergency system, the Twitterverse rapidly filled with the news.
As the officer's condition worsened, the shooting became a nationally trending topic -- particularly in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. Sadly, the officer's wounds soon proved fatal.
Shortly following the shooting, a Mercedes was carjacked near MIT. Police pursued the vehicle into a residential neighborhood in the neighboring community of Watertown, where the suspects then reportedly stole a state police SUV.
And then all heck broke loose, virtually and in reality. Users flooded Twitter with reports of a gunfight between police and two suspects.
Good guys shot at bad guys. Bad guys chucked explosives out of their stolen car, apparently intending to harm and slow down the good guys. A police officer was injured. Officers took a suspect into custody, but he died from gunshot wounds while en route to the hospital. The other suspect made his getaway. (At the time of this posting, he was still eluding authorities.) A manhunt ensued while police set up a perimeter and defused the remaining explosive devices.
Eventually, it was determined that these events were linked. They were all allegedly perpetrated by the same two men -- who are also believed to have committed the bombings.
With the help of police scanners and locals (many of whom were awoken by gunshots and explosions), all this news broke on Twitter. Very early on, Twitter users shared reports from police scanners that indicated law enforcement officials believed these events to be interrelated (while cautioning a lack of official confirmation).
Eventually, news stations got their acts together. Local affiliates, followed by CNN, Fox News, and eventually NBC News (and MSNBC), began to follow the developing story -- but not without receiving massive criticism from tweeters. Twitter was first with almost every pertinent tidbit over the course of several hours -- while TV news stations often offered repetitive noise.
Sure, there were dollops of confusion here and there on Twitter. Rumors of a controlled detonation at around 4:00 a.m. turned out to be just that -- rumors. And because many people are dubious about Twitter's veracity, the initial (and accurate) reports about the first suspect's death were originally met with uncertainty by many followers.
At about 4:45 a.m., the Twitterverse breathed a collective gasp when the words "Get down on your knees!" emanated from the police band -- and were subsequently tweeted. The community sighed in disappointment and frustration when fast-updated tweets shared the officer's following words: "Cancel that. All is well."
Still, in this sense, Twitter's ability to break news as it happens transcends traditional reporting, escalating into real live drama.
After 5:00 a.m., online updates were mainly quiet for a while, apart from recaps and opinions. An extremely important notice about 40 minutes later said that all MBTA (mass transit) service in Boston would be suspended until further notice, school districts would be closed, and law enforcement officials were asking residents to stay at home and keep their doors locked.
Kim Davis's piece this week about the Boston Marathon bombings sparked debate here on Internet Evolution about the real value of Twitter as a news source. Prior examples of Twitter surpassing mainstream channels as a breaking news source notwithstanding, the events of the past 24 hours have proven Twitter's worth (if not supremacy) as an excellent resource for breaking news.
— Joe Stanganelli is a writer, attorney, and communications consultant. He is also principal and founding attorney of Beacon Hill Law in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.