Blog Post

Remembering 9/11 — A Time Before Social Networks

New York HarborToday marks the eighth anniversary of 9/11, the bloodiest attack on U.S. soil in the nation’s history. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you’ll likely think back to where you were when you first learned about the planes hitting the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. How you learned about it, however, was likely very different than it would be if such an attack were to take place today.

Indeed, the communications landscape looked very different back in 2001. There was no Twitter, no MySpace, and it would be three more years before Mark Zuckerberg would drop out of Harvard to found Facebook. I came across an insightful post this morning on Elasticity’s blog that looked at what 9/11 would have been like if we’d had the same communication tools we do today, including how some news organizations missed the mark when it came to reporting updates about the attacks in real time.

I first found out about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center via one of the oldest mediums of all: the radio. I was a junior in high school and was driving to class when the news was reported on a morning radio show. I arrived at school to find that my teacher had already canceled the day’s lesson plan; instead we spent the morning watching the horrific events unfold on CNN. Later that night, I was glued to the TV.

This past year, we’ve seen time and again how powerful Twitter can be when it comes to disseminating breaking news; examples include the TwitPic picture of the U.S. Airways plane in the Hudson River and when Iranians tweeted about the violent clashes between the government and protesters following that country’s election. But we’ve also seen how major news events, most notably the death of Michael Jackson in June, can significantly slow down and disrupt the web.

We’ve also seen how social networks can bring people together in times of grief, such as with the 2004 tsunami in Asia, the 2005 bombings in London and the Mumbai terrorist attacks late last year. When I logged onto Facebook and Twitter this morning, most of my friends’ status updates memorialized 9/11 and included an anecdote about what they were doing when they found about about the attacks. Without such social web tools, it’s unlikely that we’d take the time to pick up the phone and call friends and family to memorialize 9/11. Just a few years ago, the only communication tools on the web available to us were email, instant messenger and blogs.

What if on that tragic day we’d had social networks? Readers, please share your thoughts in the comments section.

21 Responses to “Remembering 9/11 — A Time Before Social Networks”

  1. charlotteanne

    Actually, on Wall Street that day, when telephone and cell phone networks froze and email wouldn’t work, AOL’s Instant Messenger stayed up and running. I know because I used to to talk to people there and across the country that day. I guess it just didn’t know any better.
    The fail whale hadn’t been invented yet ;->

  2. I remember that I saw it in the news on TV back in September 2001. Nevertheless, if web 2.0 social networks were alive at that time -especially Twitter- they would have been went down because of the heavy traffic. Needless to mention that trending topics would be something like [#WTC / Falling Towers, etc.]

    Anyway at this time -in 2001- there was social networking but the premier version of them, and by any mean, this was a tragedy that any human being would not accept.

  3. Dilip C. Andrade

    I remember that one of the sites that didn’t crumble under the load was slashdot. If I recall correctly they moved to a static HTML page (or at least some of the page serves in the round robin load balance were done that way) to reduce the load on their servers.

    They managed better than most of the news sites to get the information out because they understood how crippling the load would be and moved to a setup that allowed for the same information to be transmitted with a reduced processing load.

  4. As many people have said before, there were plenty of social networks in existence at that time – most of my news about the events came from a couple of forums dedicated to other topics, but on which I knew a number of journalists, TV people etc, who were all constantly feeding updates back and discussing what was happening.

  5. I’d say we had social networks, we had weblogs. There was a constant flow of information from Dave Winer,, as well as others. We had RSS, but I remember refreshing a few sites constantly throughout the day.

    It was tight knit in 2001, so there wasn’t as much noise to sort through. Today on Twitter you’d have to sort through “OMG a plane hit the WTC!” from a gazillion people, trending would be full of garbage IMHO, but the word would’ve gotten out, that’s for sure.

    I found out via a very ancient social network, my wife actually woke me and communicated it verbally. A lost art if you ask me. ;-)

    I think the 2001 version was a bit better in a lot of ways.

    • Oh, yeah, almost forgot! CNN and NY Times were impossible to get to. Dave Winer’s Scripting News was my primay source of information that day. (

      I’m fairly confident Twitter would’ve emploded under the weight.

  6. bowerbird

    is this a tech site?

    how can you fail so utterly to know tech history?

    in 2001, the purpose now served by “social networks”
    was being served then by topic-oriented _listserves_…

    so yeah, we got the word very quickly. indeed, i am
    on the west coast, but heard about the first plane and
    turned on the t.v. even before the second plane hit…


  7. Twitter would crash very fast, so it would be mostly like in 2001 (radio and TV).

    There would be a lot more pictures published about the event.

    Dow Jones is today at 9605, just like in 2001.

  8. Om,
    We did have rudimentary social networks,including AOL’s INstant Messenger service, with its Buddy Lists. I was on AOL IM that day with one of the columnists I edited for
    I wrote about it here:
    I drew a lot of curious stares from reporters at MSM because I took the step of saving to my hard drive that IM and 34 others from colleagues at that day.

  9. Nothing would have changed…In 2001, people got to know about the attacks through radio and TV.., if it were to happen today, most of us would have still gotten to know about it through the same medium, and a fair bunch of us would have been on Twitter and Facebook to show “how concerned we are”..

    That apart nothing changes..The same number of people would have died..It does not change anything for people who are at Ground Zero..

    This post actually makes me cringe!

  10. 9/11 happened outside my window (I was on the NJ side, across from the WTC – ) but I can tell you that there were some social networks out there or sites that served as such.

    Here’s a good example of HOW it unfolded on Metafilter on that day –>

    The second plane hit at 9:03 – my comment on that thread is 3 minutes later at 9:06 ( ) before most media had reported it. But my goal wasn’t to beat the media as much as it was to share with my online community/friends.

    Other blogs served as different communities. For example, Dave Winer posted quick updates from California:

    So don’t assume that just because facebook or twitter didn’t exist, electronic communication was impossible. That thread (and subsequent ones on that day and later at MeFi) became a lifeline

  11. Tom Kennedy

    Very interesting topic.

    Aside from the non-existence of social media, I recall having a heckuva time trying to get an Internet connection to the main online news sites of the time…CNN and MSNBC. Our office resorted to using the b&w, rabbit ears TV I hauled in from the trunk of my car (which was in there because I had just moved across the country).

    • In SF on 9.11. Day was totally different than a typical day. Husband called from Cisco to tell me about attacks. I drove to get him from SF to San Jose. Could not wait to get to him. 101 closed at the airport for a time because of terrorism worries and I sat and waited in the traffic. Staff at Cisco leaving to be with family. All of us clung to each other in sorrow and knowledge of the fragility of life and the terrible deaths aside from any political beliefs.

  12. Remember the misinformation? There were rumors that the State Dept. had been bombed, etc. that morning. Much confusion. Given that twitter conversation chains quickly come to resemble a game of telephone, how would this have exacerbated the amount of misinformation?

  13. Fascinating, I hadn’t even considered this. And now that I think about it, I heard about it over the intercom (in school) and then ‘discussed’ it on IRC: chat was the closest thing to today’s social networks at the time.