9/11 in a Social Media World

Peter Stringer

by Peter Stringer

Special to the eTail Blog

Ten years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a lot has changed in our world.

Perhaps the biggest difference in American life that separates 2001 from 2011 is the proliferation of information technology and social media. Simply put, had the unprecedented events of 9/11 transpired in 2011, the tragedy would have been drastically different on many fronts, from the way the attack was plotted, to how we absorbed and mourned the catastrophe.

Ten years doesn’t seem like a very long time, but when it comes to the evolution of digital technology, a decade is a very, very long time.

In September of 2001, text messaging was basically non-existent in the United States, and the smart phone (remember the term “PDA”?) was in its infancy. In fact, the cell phone itself had yet to deeply penetrate American life the way it would over the next few years. But even that fateful day, as I left work in the early afternoon as everyone tried to make sense of the morning’s events, placing phone call was nearly impossible. Connecting to the cellular network was extremely difficult in the hours following the tragedy, and even if you could connect, you’d get busy signals, or misdirected calls.

As long as I live, I’ll remember walking home to the Fenway from my office in Boston’s financial district – it didn’t seem safe to take the subway – trying to call my roommate, a United Airlines flight attendant. As it would turn out, she was safe at home, but I didn’t know if she was dead or alive until I walked into my apartment and found her staring at the TV and crying, clutching her phone. I knew she’d flown that United Flight 11 to Los Angeles many times before, but she wasn’t on board that Tuesday. She took non-stop phone calls from all over the globe that day, with friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances checking to make sure she was safe.

Had it been 2011, she’d have likely posted on her Facebook page that she wasn’t on the plane, giving relief to many of us who couldn’t reach her for hours. She could have sent a mass text to her friends and family. It would have saved many of us several hours of fearing the worst. To this day, I haven’t forgotten the feeling of opening the apartment door and seeing her on the couch.

Terrorism and Tragedy as a Social Experience

In 2001, Facebook was three years from being born, and really about seven years from maturing into a major communications platform. But if you imagine 9/11 with Facebook as it is today, the entire experience would have been quite different.

Victims, realizing that their lives were suddenly about to end, could have posted goodbyes to friends and families to YouTube or other outlets. It’s crazy to think about it, but what would you do if you feared – or knew, for that matter – you were about to die? Would it even cross your mind to make a post to Facebook in this scenario?

While some people had the chance to call loved ones from air phones, cell phones or office phones in the World Trade Center, passengers aboard hijacked flights could have potentially tweeted what was going on (likely sparking rampant retweeting) had there been wifi on board, or moments before impact when the planes were close enough to the ground to get cell reception.

After the first impact in Manhattan, pictures of the burning North Tower would have been taken from all across the city, from street level outside of the building, and snapped by occupants of the South Tower who saw the explosion out their windows. The cameraphone didn’t exist in 2001, but a high-resolution lens is standard equipment on today’s smartphones. With such equipment, the tragedy would have obviously been far better documented than it was, and it’s likely the citizens of New York would have captured incredible first-person footage of the second plane impacting the South Tower.

Reports say that occupants of the South Tower were initially told by building security to stay put in their offices, and that the issue was contained. But if those victims posted status and photos to Facebook describing the North Tower scene, as word spread that a commercial airliner had struck the tower, and friends and family had commented on their posts, possibly telling them to leave the building, perhaps more people may have left the South Tower in time to survive the second impact. It’s all speculation, obviously, but indecision paralyzed many people on 9/11. Perhaps social influence from loved ones could have mobilized more people to ignore building security’s initial instructions and leave the South Tower earlier.

Meanwhile, United 93′s storied passenger revolt is largely credited to passengers calling home after the hijacking and finding out about what had already transpired in New York City. With on-board wifi, providing laptops with access to Twitter, Facebook and the Internet, perhaps they’d have learned more quickly of the crashes at the World Trade Center and had more time to potentially prevent the hijacking altogether. Given the timings of the attacks, there was little time for news to disseminate, but as we’ve learned with the recent earthquake along the East Coast, news travels quickly across the social media relay – sometimes faster than an earthquake itself.

Remember the missing persons signs plastered all over lower Manhattan in the weeks after 9/11? I’m guessing a lot of that activity would have happened on Facebook, given its viral capabilities. Unfortunately, for those lost and their loved ones, the results wouldn’t have been any different. But those messages, limited to street corners in 2001, would have been shared front and center in our News Feeds across the globe.

Social Media and the Healing Process

The dominant technology for rapidly sharing experiences, rumors and misinformation in 2001 was the email chain. In the weeks and months following 9/11, personal accounts of near-misses, tragic stories of loss and, of course, unsubstantiated rumors spread like wildfire across email. Everything from a purported picture of a tourist standing atop one of the towers as a plane approaches, to a creepy song-by-song breakdown explaining why U2′s 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind (featuring “Beautiful Day,” “Walk On,” “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Peace on Earth,” and “New York”) had purportedly predicted the tragedy, made the rounds on email.

Social media’s real-time sharing is a different story altogether. Messages are much shorter and carry far less detail, but they circulate with blinding speed. Still, as soon as you can share something on Facebook, your missive is bumped down the News Feed by something else. So what would your News Feed have looked like on 9/11? Presumably, it would be overwhelmed with posts of mourning, sadness, horror and anger. People who rarely post would likely feel compelled to suddenly weigh in, caught up in the heat of the moment.

But how much phone or in-person contact would you actually have with your friends and family in the aftermath?

I remember gathering with a group of friends at my apartment to watch George Bush address the nation that night. I remember standing on the rooftop of my apartment building, staring at a silent horizon, occasionally interrupted by fighter planes patrolling the Northeast sky. But mostly, what stands out about that night, and the days following, are the 9/11 conversations I had with friends, family and coworkers with whom I’d initially watched the tragedy unfold live on TV. I remember the uneasy feeling I had getting on the T the next morning heading to work, where I ran into a college friend I hadn’t seen in a few months. We instinctively gave each other a hug.

Over the next week or so you’ll see social media sites ask people to share their memories. Out of curiosity, I made a rare Facebook post myself last Tuesday, two weeks ahead of the anniversary.

“Interrupting your regularly-scheduled News Feed narcissism for a serious question: Ten years later, what do you remember most vividly about 9/11?”

I don’t use Facebook much in my personal life, so I didn’t expect a lot of responses. And let’s be honest: serious questions aren’t your typical status update fodder. I did get some amazing stories about that day, from some people I didn’t even know at the time, that I would likely have otherwise never heard.

It will be interesting to see what’s shared on Facebook this Sunday. People typically aren’t comfortable sharing feelings beyond “loving life right now,” “I have the best boyfriend in the world,” or “look at all of the awesome places I’ve gone planking on vacation this year.” When a mild earthquake interrupts their day, sure, people will feel the need to comment. But few want to share how they really feel about something important with 300 people they sort of know. Ten years later, politics are significant part of the 9/11 dialogue, but politics aren’t polite on Facebook.

In 2001, you had phone conversations. You talked to your friends when you waited together for a flight at the airport. You weren’t looking at your phone every two minutes at dinner. You just talked to each other. That’s how we healed.

We all had our own take on the September 11 experience, and the only place we were really documenting it was verbally, at the water cooler or over drinks after work. And it was part of the therapy. In the years since that date, I’ve probably discussed 9/11 on at least 40-50 occasions, and watching footage from 9/11 still gives me the chills.

You can expect 9/11 references (and a dash of NFL football) to consume your timelines and News Feeds next Sunday. Expect your friends to post stories, memories, quotes and comments throughout the day.

On September 12, they’ll go back to posting about Beyonce’s pregnancy and #humblebrags.

I’m not saying that social media would make us care less if another 9/11 comes along, because despite everything I’ve detailed above, we just don’t know how it really would be. Hopefully, we never have to find out. But given the world we live in, it seems likely that eventually, we’ll get an answer. I’m guessing the sadness, horror and anger and desire for revenge will feel familiar.

The healing process, however, will never be the same.

Peter Stringer is in his sixth season with the Boston Celtics. Serving as the team’s Director of Interactive Media, Stringer manages the the team’s interactive and social media marketing and strategy. Visit his blog at peterstringer.com. Peter will be a keynote presenter, sharing a case study at the Social Commerce Strategies conference, which will take place from January 24-26, 2012 in Palo Alto, CA. Visit the website to learn more.