05.04.11

Teens Who Never Heard of Osama Bin Laden

Soon after the al Qaeda leader was killed, Twitter feeds and search engines lit up with queries from people who'd never heard of him. Brian Ries examines the data to find out who was asking.

Soon after the al Qaeda leader was killed, Twitter feeds and search engines lit up with queries from people who'd never heard of him. Brian Ries examines the data to find out who was asking. Plus, full coverage of Osama bin Laden's death.

It was early Monday morning. As much of the Western world was waking up to news that Osama bin Laden had been shot dead in an American-led raid on his compound, a young Canadian girl named Olivia awoke to a curiosity.

Who was this guy with the funny name taking over her Twitter feed?

She pulled up her own Twitter page—itself a digital teenage-bedroom wall littered with images of 19-year-old Twilight star Taylor Lautner—and typed a tweet into her iPhone, which she then sent to her 50-odd followers. "Who is Osama Bin Laden? and why are people celebrating this death?" it read.

The replies came swiftly. "He's a professional terrorist," one explained. "He is the terriost [sic] that planned 9-11," tweeted another. "For real?" questioned a third, stunned to learn that someone didn't know who the world's most famous Islamic extremist was.

But Olivia wasn't the only one living in a cave.

Ned Hepburn, a New York-based freelance writer, was watching Twitter on Monday afternoon and—through "a pretty simple search and just personal curiosity"—spotted a handful of users admitting that they had no idea who bin Laden was. He found it "extremely interesting," and began retweeting their comments, effectively forwarding their digital curiosities to his 826 followers:

"Who is Osama bin Laden? is he famous? am i the only one who dont know who is he?"

"Who is Osama and why is it important we killed him?"

"Who is Osama Bin Laden? Is he in a band as well?"

While the majority of these kids don't list their exact ages or locations, a few appear to be internationally based. Others say they grew up in the United States, listing Craborchard, West Virginia, or simply "New York" in their profiles.

To be sure, relative to the sheer volume of young people active on Twitter, not too many pleaded ignorance about Osama's identity, and a few tweets would be easy to dismiss as anomalies.

“Who is Osama bin Laden? is he famous? am i the only one who dont know who is he?”

But data suggest that more than a few Internet users needed a little help understanding who Osama bin Laden was. Yahoo!, which tracks trends through its search queries, detected a significant bump in searches by people trying to identify the mysterious name. The analysts at Yahoo!'s search blog pored over the data and found that teens were behind many of the searches for news about the death of the world's No. 1 boogeyman.

In fact, teens between the ages of 13 and 17—mere toddlers during the 9/11 attacks—made a full two-thirds of the overall searches for the phrase "who is osama bin laden?" in the hours following President Obama's television announcement.

In addition, "One in three searches for 'how did osama bin laden die' on Sunday were from teens ages 13-17," the company says in a blog post that contains the trend information. It adds that 40 percent of all searches for who killed him were from users between the ages of 13 and 20.

And on Facebook, a handful of groups have popped up for those lonely souls seeking others left in the darkness. One page, titled "Who the f*ck is Osama Bin Laden?!?," claims just 20 members. Another, which features a profile picture of the al Qaeda leader emblazoned with the text "Who Are You?" has four.

So how could anyone have missed the most devastating act of international terrorism ever to take place on America's shores?

On 9/11, many of today's teens were young enough that their parents might have kept them shielded from the day's horrific events. Others may have compartmentalized the day, never to revisit the images of ash-covered firemen and carnage in the streets. Indeed, a 2009 Newsweek story by Claudia Kalb looked at Generation 9/11, and found it was a tough moment for the Millennials, who were raised be "sheltered, close to their parents, and confident."

And then, of course, there's the possibility that most of these Twitter users were raised overseas in an education system that placed less importance on teaching the events of 9/11.

But if a small sampling of tweets and search queries are to be believed, Osama bin Laden was never on some teens' radar. For them, he's a history lesson glanced over, a trending topic soon to be replaced by a newer, more mesmerizing hashtag.

Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.