Just before 10 p.m. on Sunday night, while browsing my typically calm late night Twitter feed just before bed, I noticed that a friend of mine had retweeted an announcement about an impromptu address by the president, scheduled for 10:30 p.m.:
For the next 20 minutes, I scoured Twitter for information. I noticed more and more of my Twitter contacts were also joining the search, posting guesses as to the speech's topic as well as copious retweets from other users. Suddenly, another one of my close, politically-savvy friends retweeted a message that has already become part of the lore of that night:
The tweet spread like wildfire, minutes before CNN, MSNBC, or any other network had announced the story. Although it was still technically a rumor, its source (Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff) seemed credible.
Before the major networks even had a chance to cut into their regularly scheduled programming, I had already booked a Zipcar and was on my way to the White House, a mere 10-minute drive from my apartment. More importantly, I had my DSLR camera and BlackBerry in tow.
Down at the White House, the scene was ebullient chaos. People of all ages were pouring into the open space between the White House fence and Lafayette Park, waving American flags and cheering wildly:
Cars formed informal parade floats along the adjoining streets of downtown D.C., honking in support of the bystanders:
A few brave, skilled climbers hoisted their way up to the domineering light poles that lined the square, draping American flags from the lights, as if in a modern adaptation of Iwo Jima:
Nearly every person in the crowd had a smartphone in hand, uploading content -- tweets, photos, videos -- practically in real-time. By midnight, the cell networks were straining under the weight of the stream of data.
I made my way up to the magnificent iron gates of the White House, only yards from where the president was delivering his address to the world. I furiously updated my Facebook status, posting snapshots when possible.
As to the critics who have criticized the celebrations as a morbid, perhaps deplorable glorification of Osama's death, I respond with the following: a highly emotional moment I captured at the White House fence, one you won't catch on a news network:
Judging from the reactions and energy crowd at the White House last night, the celebration was not actually about Bin Laden's death. It was about granting symbolic and psychological closure to a dark decade in our history.
Thanks to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube -- which are often derided for being too trivial -- powerful experiences such as Sunday night's celebration can be shared across great physical distances easily, cheaply, and meaningfully. Watershed moments -- the sort that you retell faithfully to your grandchildren -- have been deepened and extended by the communication platforms we have built. These are the moments that, hardly a generation ago, might not have been known outside of the 15 or 20 people within direct viewing range.
I packed up and decided to head home at around 1:45 a.m. Others were still pouring into the square, coming from all around D.C. to see the scene that had undoubtedly flooded their social networks.
At 2:58 a.m., I signed out of Facebook and finally called it a night. And what a night it was.