Catching up with the guy who ‘live-blogged’ bin Laden raid

Three years ago today, software consultant/coffee shop proprietor Sohaib Athar was working on his laptop at home in Pakistan when he tweeted: "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)." And then: "A huge window-shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope it's not the start of something nasty :-S."

It was ... for Osama bin Laden.

Sohaib Athar - People do bring it up.

For Athar it was the start of a 14-hour marathon that saw him tweeting out to the world whatever information became available to him, mostly reports from locals who were online and what he could hear from his vantage point about a mile and a half from the U.S. raid on bin Laden's compound. Quickly dubbed "the guy who live-blogged the raid without knowing it," he became a must-have interview for journalists worldwide.

In recent days we've chatted via email, especially about his media experiences. Here's an edited version of that exchange:

Has your notoriety as "the OBL blogger" been of any benefit (or detriment) to you in terms of attracting clients? Do people bring it up?

Since before the OBL incident, I have been working on a couple of long-term projects I got involved in through my old professional network. I have deliberately tried to keep that Twitter incident separate from my work, as it isn't really an "accomplishment," per se. People do bring it up every now and then, but the conversation usually lasts 5 minutes and then it is back to actual business.

Is it on your business card (kidding)?

No. I haven't really used a business card since 2006.

Has the OBL experience altered your view of social media in any way?

I have been using social media since the mid-90s, which were the days of IRC and ICQ, and have seen it evolve over the years. My view hasn't really changed with the OBL incident. My view about the mainstream media has altered significantly, though.

Could you elaborate on that a bit?

I quit watching TV/Cable many years ago, and get my news online. In Pakistan, the media normally sensationalizes most newsworthy events. Regarding the OBL incident, since I was personally involved with some of that reporting, I witnessed the media people trying to extract the point of view they wanted to show. They'd also get most of the facts wrong and didn't care about the small details (my name/occupation being one of them) which should be pretty easy to do. Some of them were genuinely trying to get the facts right and report them, but most of what was happening in Abbottabad was a race to get something "exclusive."

Tweet 2

It started with them reporting OBL was caught "right outside Islamabad" (Abbottabad is pretty far away from the capital but I guess they just had to tie up the capital with OBL), moved on to reporting that OBL lived in a "mansion" (it was a regular house, though large, but certainly not a mansion) and only got worse from there.

Back to your life as a software consultant/coffee shop owner: How are you managing that division of labor these days?

I am actually taking a small break from both businesses for a couple of months. The coffee shop is being run by the staff (around 12 employees) and I just look at the daily reports and stay in touch via CCTV/VNC/Phone with what's happening there. My software consulting is at a pause as well, though I will resume it sometime later this year.

Does your establishment offer Wi-Fi, free or otherwise? I ask in part because I've seen in your Twitter stream indications that Internet connectivity cannot be taken for granted there.

Actually, these days, Wi-Fi has become more commonplace, though connectivity isn't as stable as we'd like it to be. The businesses in larger cities (like Lahore, my hometown) are mostly offering free Wi-fi. My coffee shop was the first business to offer free Wi-Fi in Abbottabad, though almost every restaurant here has it now.

I have observed that a lot more people from Abbottabad are on Twitter; it was hardly a dozen 3 years ago.  I guess Abbottabad is a hot keyword now. My search column for Abbottabad on Tweetdeck used to be the place where I would read what people were talking about regarding the city, but now it is full of keyword-stuffed spam tweets, and the "...talk Abbottabad place to hide" pun that ceased to be funny a long time ago. The locals moved on and got over the OBL news maybe a week after it happened; it is mainly the media that has somehow kept it alive.

Have you had any issue with customers who use your Internet connection but don't buy stuff; Wi-Fi squatters, as they're known here?

As long as the coffee shop is not completely filled up, we don't force the guests to order something. Most of the people use the Internet on their phones and there aren't many laptop users coming in who'd sit and work for hours. But if they do, they are usually considerate enough to order something every hour or so. The bandwidth is capped per connection so a single person doesn't hog it :-) 

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