Everyone has their own memory of where they were when the World Trade Center was destroyed, and mine (not surprisingly perhaps) is inextricably linked to the media, since that’s what I do. There are obviously far more important and compelling versions of what happened that day, and many lessons that have been learned about global politics and humanity in general in the years since. But what strikes me every time I think about September 11 is how much the media landscape — particularly on the web — was transformed by those events, and how very different the world is now when it comes to how we experience real-time news.
On September 11, 2001 I was one of a small handful of staff working for the fledgling online division of The Globe and Mail, a daily paper based in Toronto. We were running the paper’s breaking news website, which had been launched a little over a year earlier, and we were in a small section of the Globe’s newsroom with a bank of televisions. I remember standing there watching the towers fall in a room that was completely silent, except for gasps of astonishment and the sound of people weeping.
It’s fascinating to think now about how that news spread, compared to how news spreads today. I heard about the first plane in an online discussion forum on TheStreet.com, where brokers and traders talked about various investment-related issues in an informal sort of chatroom. Someone mentioned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and I passed that on to my wife, who turned on the television, but it still wasn’t clear what exactly had happened. On a commuter train heading into downtown Toronto, I heard a man on his cellphone say: “What do you mean, a second airplane hit the towers?”
No smartphones, no Twitter, no YouTube
Once I was in the office, the televisions were the main source of news — but being the online news staff, we also dove into the web to find out everything we could about the incidents. And it wasn’t just us: my wife told me later that she spent the day in front of the computer, trying to get news updates from our site and others, and millions of people were clearly doing the same — many of the leading news sites, including CNN and the New York Times, were either unavailable or incredibly slow.
In many ways, September 11 was the “CNN moment” for the web, as the Iraq war was the defining moment for CNN itself, and as the revolution in Egypt has been described by some as the CNN moment for Twitter as a real-time news network — one that we now almost take for granted will feed us images and video and links about a news event as it occurs, virtually anywhere in the world. In the days that followed the attacks on the U.S., the web arguably became the number one source of information about those events, and trained a generation to expect real-time news from hundreds or even thousands of web sources.
Now try and think about what it might have been like if September 11 happened today, with ubiquitous smartphones featuring cameras and video and web access. Although cellular networks were overloaded in the aftermath of the attacks, some Blackberry messages got out of the towers — and today, we would almost certainly have gotten a real-time flow of tweets and images and video from people in the towers, at the Pentagon, even on the plane that flew into the ground in Stony Creek, Pennsylvania.
Social media gives us a view from the ground up
We might have gotten something similar to what journalism professor and author Jeff Jarvis was posting to Twitter throughout the day on Sunday: memories of moving through the rubble and debris in the basement of the World Trade Center, choking on the dust, trying to find safety, uncertain of what was happening above. Would that have been a good thing or a bad thing? Washington Post publisher Katherine Weymouth said recently that she was glad there was no social media during the event, because it would have been too chaotic and terrible to see those images.
I disagree. I think Jarvis is right when he says that having Twitter would have given us a very different view of what was happening — a view, as he put it, “at eye-level.” It’s the same thing that Twitter has given us during the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, and during the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti and elsewhere: real and compelling perspectives from people actually in those places, not just from news anchors who have been flown in for the event, or who are watching video clips on a monitor in a hotel room somewhere. That is a fundamentally different way of experiencing the news.
None of this replaces the work that traditional journalists do, the reporting and curating and analysis and so on that takes place during and after such events. It simply extends and expands and amplifies the amount of information available to us. In some cases, that information is wrong or misleading or inflammatory, but at the same time it is real and raw and human and immediate.
That is an incredibly powerful thing we have now — in some ways, an extension of the real-time and distributed news flow that we first saw during the days following the attacks of September 11. They changed the world, and also our perception of it.