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By Sara Felsenstein – London

| Sunday, March 13, 2011

When Twitter first gained popularity in 2008, despite the growing excitement of friends and classmates, I refused to jump on the tweeting bandwagon. I considered myself a “real” writer, someone who spent hours composing works of fiction or poetry, someone who slaved over each and every sentence of an English essay, someone who in no way could say something significant in 140 characters or less.

This whole “microblogging” deal seemed to me a joke, a mockery of formal writing. I viewed Twitter as the equivalent of thousands of loud, attention-seeking people in one room, all of them shouting but no one listening. While Twitter did earn some credibility in my eyes when news stations began referencing certain tweets, I still thought it unnecessary, and never believed I would need to sign up for Twitter to stay informed.

That view changed completely this month.

While studying in London I am interning at the NBC News London Bureau. With the royal wedding just weeks away, it is an incredibly exciting time to be here, but what has defined my experience most are the revolutions sweeping across the Middle East.

I can sense London’s relative proximity to the action even as I go about my day, and have become aware of the magnitude of these revolutions in a way I never would have back in the United States. Just a few weeks ago, as I sat studying in the London Centre library, protesters marched through Trafalgar Square and right past our classroom building. “Free Libya!” they chanted, “No more killing! Free, free Libya!”

London is about 2000 miles from Cairo, and just under 1500 miles from Tripoli. That’s less than the distance from Los Angeles to Chicago. This sense of proximity and urgency is certainly felt at the London Bureau — in many ways London acts as a link in the transmission of information between the Middle East and the U.S.

I entered the newsroom on February 22, immediately aware of the tense, fast-paced atmosphere and the pressure everyone was feeling to stay on top of news that wasn’t completely accessible yet. The borders were not open for the media, but reporters waited outside Libya for the break.

The Libyan revolution was in full swing, and according to the reports, becoming extremely violent.

With so much going on at once, the editors needed all the help they could get. I was assigned to follow Twitter (keywords Tripoli and Libya) and YouTube (keyword Libya protest) for the day. My job was to copy down any interesting tweets I found along with links to YouTube videos recently posted, and to send these updates periodically to the Bureau.

Although I had no previous experience with Twitter, I concentrated intensely on this task. For hours I clicked refresh, switching between Twitter and YouTube, scrolling through the results to find posts posted 2 seconds ago, 30 seconds ago, 5 minutes ago. I watched what topics were trending (for awhile Justin Bieber’s new haircut was trending more than the Libyan Revolution, and then people’s anger over that very fact began to trend). I weeded out the outdated tweets and searched for ones written by Libyans experiencing the action firsthand.

Examples of striking tweets I found:

“Tripoli: reports of mercenaries riding in ambulances and shooting at people. People are confused when caring for the injured.”

“Women in Tripoli preparing containers of boiling water and oil to pour over the heads of the mercenaries.”

“BREAKING: Helicopters circling Tripoli now. Gaddafi’s soldiers are armed with machine guns with ammo.”

A few tweets I had found had been posted from women inside Libya, so I used Twitter to try and contact them. Although neither of these women responded to my message, it was thrilling to think I could directly reach out to people in the midst of the action.

The YouTube videos were graphic and difficult to watch. A young girl shot in the head. A man bleeding profusely through his stomach, his fresh blood pooling on the street. Libyan protesters burning a large sign of Gadaffi’s face. The spinning camera view in all of these videos is dizzying, but the passion of the revolutionaries translates even through the grainy two-minute clips.

They are all young. They are all men. They are all burning with anger, and feeding off the anger of one another. They know the power of the Internet and want their word out.

I refreshed Twitter. The result page is now flooded with: The borders are wide open to the media, no visas, nothing.

As I watched my computer, the sounds around me — clicking heels and buzzing espresso machines, news announcements and British accents — melded together, and all I heard were the shouts and gunshots of the protesters. All I saw were waves of Libyans, running through the hostile streets of Benghazi and Tripoli.

I followed Twitter and YouTube for five hours straight. By the end of the day, my eyes were tearing from concentration, but it was an amazing experience. I got the opportunity to receive news as it was breaking, with only a few moments’ delay between the fervent typing of women in their homes around Tripoli to the 140-character-or-less message that appeared on my screen in London.

I no longer think Twitter is pointless. I think it is absolutely essential.

I walked out of the newsroom that evening feeling jolted and strangely separated from my surroundings. I’ve read The New York Times, I’ve watched CNN, but seeing news come in raw and unfiltered like it did that day was another experience altogether.

Walking back to my flat I felt very detached from the city, from school and from my friends. I guess it was the feeling of being split between two worlds, of following the events in one city so closely without ever actually being there. And then, with the push of a revolving door, being thrust back into “normal” life. While this bizarre sense of detachment faded within an hour, I went to bed that night praying for the people of Libya, imagining what it would be like to be the man behind the camera.