This past Tuesday, CNN.com published an article about the masses of people that paid their respects to the heroes and victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Last year, on the tenth anniversary (which fell on a Sunday), memorial services were widespread and publicly broadcast. The new fountains at the World Trade Center, set in the footprints of the old buildings, were unveiled, and church services and tributes at football games across America were televised. This year, however, the anniversary kept a lower profile.
Moni Basu of CNN noted that Twitter and Facebook still received an outpouring of statuses and tweets commemorating the tragedy. WTC, Remember911, Rest in Peace, and God Bless America all ‘trended’ on Twitter at some point during the day. Because of social media outlets, people all over the world were able to voice their feelings and pay their respects in ways that they weren’t able to do eleven years ago. A lot has changed in eleven years. Had social media been around then, the manner in which those tragic events unfolded would have been very different.
Because of the sensitivity of the matter, I would rather not speculate on how communication with victims or rescuers might have changed things, but Whet Moser of ChicagoMag.com wrote a pretty grounded piece on the subject last year. Instead, I’d like to look at the way social media has changed the distribution and consumption of news.
On September 11, 2001, news traveled by way of phone calls, television signals, radio transmissions, word of mouth, and the 2001 version of the internet. Of course, the web had a very different landscape then. There was no Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. In 2001, the internet had just 513 million users worldwide. Compare that with 2.3 billion in 2012, and over 900 million Facebook users today. In a slideshow from last year, NetworkWorld.com shows us snapshots of what some of the more recognizable pages looked like that morning. Yahoo.com’s homepage is pictured below.
The slideshow notes that many news agencies converted to a text-only format because of an unprecedented number of hits and media downloads. A broken request for an image is visible in the Yahoo.com screenshot, leaving only text and links to be viewed by users. CNN’s site offered a 15 second video of one of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, while Fox News encouraged internet users to watch their television station for the latest.
Today, the internet proves to be a quicker source of breaking news than news broadcasts on television or radio. On the night of May 1, 2011 at 9:45 pm, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted that President Obama would make an unplanned announcement about national security at 10:30. But at 10:21, the chief of staff for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Keith Urbahn, tweeted, “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” After that point, Twitter exploded with the news. A Poynter.com article by Steve Myers breaks down exactly when and how the story unfolded on Twitter:
“At 10:21 p.m., the beginning of the two-hour period they studied, just five percent of tweets that mentioned bin Laden expressed certainty that he was dead, the researchers found. When Urbahn posted his “hot damn” tweet at 10:24 p.m. – followed by Stelter’s tweet about a minute later – that spiked to more than 50 percent.
When Jackson posted her reported confirmation at 10:33 p.m., 60 percent of tweets referring to bin Laden seemed certain that he was dead. That increased to about 80 percent around the time that ABC, CBS and NBC reported bin Laden’s death about 10:45 p.m., according to the study. It rose slightly from there.”
Myers writes that there were approximately 6 million tweets about Osama bin Laden that night. Many of those were posted before the major television networks could make an announcement. And by the time the President was speaking from the halls of the White House, there were dozens of Americans already lined up outside the gates to mark the historic night.
On September 11, 2001, we were glued to our television screens. On May 1, 2011, many took to Twitter instead. Social media has become the platform for which sources of information can bypass the middle man (the television network, the newspaper, etc.) and distribute news straight to consumers. Because of this shift, the average person can now not only express feelings about an event, but broadcast it live as it happens.