News Then and Now: A Response to CNN.com’s “Remembering 9/11 on Twitter and Facebook”

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.”

Credit: Steve Myers, Poynter.com

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.

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7 thoughts on “News Then and Now: A Response to CNN.com’s “Remembering 9/11 on Twitter and Facebook”

  1. It is so crazy to think about how much technology has evolved since 9/11/01, a day that seems like just yesterday. I can’t really imagine what it would have been like if technology were more advanced back then, especially when it comes to photo-sharing platforms like Flickr and Instagram. Using the night of 5/1/11 as an example of how far technology has come was an excellent idea. All of us on campus that night can remember the growing roar coming from the mods as more and more of our classmates discovered the news – most of them from social media!

  2. Great post. I also noticed that there was far less attention placed on the anniversary this year. Most concrete to me was how it was not shown on the front page of the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal (article below). This void may have driven more people to use social media to express their views. It’s amazing to look at how this has changed over the past year and would be interesting to compare how the newspapers social media will react on May 1 this year.

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/business/2012/09/september-11-fades-headlines/56724/

  3. I like the way you juxtapose 2001 and 2011. It’s amazing to consider how communication has changed in just 10 years and to ponder what lies ahead. There is certainly no shortage of social media channels now, but what will the landscape look like in 10 more years? I tend to envision everyone having a dashboard that all of their social channels feed to and which allows them to post to any or all of their social feeds at once. What do you think?

  4. I too am surprised at the advancements we’ve made in social media, and moreover to technology in general. What I just realized however is how annoyed i’d be if things were as they were in 2001. I now expect things to be conveniently located, attractive (good design is something I value highly), and most of all, there should be videos. After staring at some sort of screen for what seems like most of my day the last thing I often want to do is read from one for leisure. Videos offer the convenience of knowledge without much effort. Plus, video is clearly the better medium for conveying something like 9/11. There are just no words to describe the feeling of seeing such an event that are better than actually watching it. I suppose what i’m really trying to say is that my expectations have been permanently raised for all things internet. I expect more from it technically just as I expect more from the content it provides.

  5. Nice post. I think the biggest impact 9/11 may have had on social media was the role of cell phones in the event. Since many of the victims used cell phones to call family members to say their goodbyes (including from the planes), it really accelerated their adoption as people realized they wanted to be constantly connected, “just in case.” Fast forward a decade and cellphones have become mobile Internet devices, which are fueling all sorts of novel uses of social media.

  6. Great post, I really liked how you compared to two forms of headline grabbing news over 10 years ago to now. Looking back I was on Twitter for the Bin Laden news versus the TV traditionally. One of your peers actually took the same ideas you presented and applied them to insider sports news.

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