What if we’d had today’s social media on 9/11?

At the Knight-Batten Symposium at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, keynote speaker and Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth made a provocative statement. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something like, “Thank goodness social media wasn’t invented yet on September 11.”

Eds Note: Jeff Sonderman has the full quote at Poynter, along with additional analysis of the eyebrow-raising speech. 

She noted how horrific it would be to read the final tweets or Facebook updates of those destined to die in the Twin Towers or watch YouTube videos from inside the burning buildings as people are jumping out.  And she’s right, it would be horrific….but I don’t say “thank goodness” to that lack of social media. I imagine, “What if?”

I say, if today’s social media had been around, those who perished on September 11, 2001 could have been the storytellers of their own history..  When I put this wondering onto my Facebook page and Google+, it prompted a great discussion with other journalists and social media users.

Cory Bergman of BreakingNews.com disagreed with Weymouth’s premise, “That’s like saying, thank goodness there was no live TV — we didn’t need to see the towers collapse.”

Angel Brownawell agreed with Bergman, saying, “We would’ve all had A LOT of information to consume and sift through, but it wouldn’t have been any more distressing than hearing about the last voice mails, answering machine messages or the live TV images.”

Which journalists wouldn’t look, albeit squeamishly, for the last words and moments of fellow Americans, intentionally left behind for history and final goodbyes? We would have been able to sift through the mounds of social media data to piece together the story in a way we still haven’t been able to manage. We’d know who was there, how they died and exactly what happened to them. We’d have known went through the minds of those who chose to jump from the Towers. We’d have known exactly how a plane went down in a field in Shanksville, Pa.

On my Facebook page, Jeremy Binckes of TBD extolled the value of those first-hand reports,”The one thing about the attacks we’ll never know and will never be CERTAIN of is,”What was it really like? … It’s the one angle of the story we’ll never really know firsthand.”

My former soccer coach, Jim Boyd, noted on Facebook, “Perhaps having social media would have changed the events on the planes in a positive way.”

Law enforcement would have benefitted from social media, too.  It would have helped to know who was in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon and who was just missing after the confusion. Recounting and videos of emergency rescues from these scenes could have helped inform safety procedures for future events.

Even aside from its use for journalists, law enforcement and historians, I think social media would have been a vital way for the nation to come together with friends, family, and strangers for comfort. Remember what it was like the night Osama Bin Laden was killed? Nobody could have felt alone with such a networked world out there.

Bruce Warren noted there was a bit of social media in use at the time that brought he and his friends together.

That morning I was on a public message board with people I had met through a band. Many lived in NYC and were posting updates all morning. Also helped to make sure everyone was accounted for that we could think of on there. Was not uncommon that day to read an update, then hear it via the media.

Brownawell and my friend Lauren Worley noted the importance of AOL Instant Messenger on 9/11.

“I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, and it was the only way I could communicate with my family to let them know my coworkers and I were ok where we were, ” Worley commented on Facebook.

Brownawell had a similar story.

“I remember hoping into an AIM chatroom that day and night, and talking to about 30 or so people for dozens of hours about what had happened. Not Facebook, not Twitter. But still online social interactions. Perhaps if Twitter had been around, I would still be in touch with those people today.”

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