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.

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