Remembering September 11th: How Social Media has Changed the Way We Communicate

This week is the 14th anniversary of one of the most memorable events of this century. It’s amazing to think how differently things would have been with the technology we have now and how advanced our communication has become.

(c) Can Stock Photo
(c) Can Stock Photo

The debate continues on whether social media is a waste of time or an advertising powerhouse, but the truth is, it’s a powerful communication medium. In fact, according to Pew Research, more than 60% of Facebook and Twitter users use the social sites as a news source. It’s also where people go when major, newsworthy events happen so they can connect with friends and family and access breaking news.

September 11, 2001 – Pullman, WA

I remember exactly how I was woken up on September 11, 2001. I’m sure most Americans who were school-age or older at the time remember the details of that day quite vividly. I was a senior in college at Washington State University in eastern Washington and shared an apartment with my friend Megan.

I woke up to our phone ringing a little after 6am.  This was not completely unusual as Megan had early morning classes, so friends would sometimes call to meet up with her to go to class together. I had bulked up on classes my first three years to make my senior year as easy as possible, with only two difficult classes twice a week, PE classes twice a week and Fridays off. September 11th fell upon my dance class day.

I answered the phone. It was our friend Kenneth. I could hardly understand a word he was saying, but I knew it was bad from the panicked tone of this usually well-composed broadcasting major. This is the moment when I recall the trivial appointment of when we were scheduled to have our cable hooked up: September 12, 2001.

We had internet, but back then, it was mainly used for emailing, chatting or updating my Encyclopaedia Britannica software. Google existed, but many of us preferred Yahoo! or MSN, neither of which could handle the sudden rush of traffic from everyone trying to find out what was going on. YouTube was still a few years out and live streaming video wasn’t something the average person was equipped to do, as Periscope and Meerkat do now. I had a cell phone, but many of my friends didn’t, and it was long-distance for most of my friends to call me. The phone lines were busy anyway and no one I knew texted back then.

I remember turning the radio to a news station to find out what was going on. The broadcast is fuzzy in my memory, but I recall standing in the shower, crying because I had no idea what was going on and was 300 miles away from my parents. It made me think of stories I had heard from my parents and grandparents about war times, and how they had panicked every time they heard airplanes overhead.

Still unsure of the immensity of the attacks going on, I suited up and showed up at the gym for dance class. It had been cancelled, but there really was no easy way of getting the word out. I remained in a fog most of the day, listening to the radio and attempting to contact any of my friends in the affected areas. The phone lines were busy and we were instructed to leave phone lines open for those in emergency situations and their family members.

That afternoon, I visited my aunt and uncle, who lived just a couple minutes away. We watched the news together. That was the first time I was able to attempt to understand the magnitude of what had happened that day. I was not prepared for what I saw that day: people jumping out of the burning Twin Towers as they were crumbling down. This was not the America I knew. These kinds of things didn’t happen. It was terrifying.

Social Media Now

I think of how much technology has changed since 9/11/01 and how different things would have been. We’ve unfortunately seen how social media has played a part in communication during more recent attacks like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The Boston Marathon comes to mind first, because one of my friends was running it. I remember seeing a short post from her on Facebook letting everyone know she was safe, although she had passed the bomb site mere minutes before it went off. A bathroom break could have cost her a limb or her life. That post was followed by a few more explaining where she was and what was going on.

Imagine having that technology during 9/11. Chances are not everyone would be able to easily access their mobile devices and update their Facebook statuses, but those that could would be able to start building a framework of who had been affected. Maybe Joe had left his phone behind, but Dave had his and could let Joe’s friends and family know he was safe. Updates could let searchers prioritize where to look first. Maybe a few people were trapped in an area, but none were hurt so they could let rescuers know their whereabouts, but send them to those in immediate danger.

Here’s a few ways that we can find out what’s going on right now, especially during emergencies:

Facebook Safety Check: Did you know Facebook has a safety check feature? It notifies those who may be in disaster areas about what’s going on and offers a quick way to check in and let friends and family know you’re okay or that you’re not in the affected area. One tap of a button to notify your whole network.

Twitter Trending Topics: If you use Twitter, you’re very likely familiar with trending topics. On the left side of your Twitter feed is a list of local or global trends based upon your settings. A more light-hearted example is when there was a report of a loose tiger in a nearby city and #PuyallupTiger started trending. It was easy to follow any updates on the “tiger” and even the local news and police departments tweeted about it. Trending topics makes it very easy to find out what’s going on and quickly access all the updates on that topic.

Live Video Broadcasting: Periscope and Meerkat are two apps that allow users to live-stream video to an audience. Excitingly enough, my first Periscope was storm chasing in Kansas City with my coworker, Carolyn. While these apps can be used for fun or educational purposes, they can also be used during disasters so viewers can see things as they are happening.

Social Media: Ensuring We Never Forget

I’m sure there are many memories from that day that I no longer recall. When I think back to that day, I remember being trapped in a fog of confusion and uncertainty, not really knowing what was going on and not having the kind of access to current events that we have now.

For more recent events, we get annual reminders from Facebook of what we were doing that day. Is that something we want? Would we really want Facebook reminding us what we were doing “on this day” 14 years ago? Do we want to re-live that terror every anniversary of 9/11? And will our memories be as vivid now that we have devices and social media to remember it for us?

While it’s important to have documentation of events for historical purposes, perhaps we don’t always want to re-live every socially documented moment. It’s hard to say. Social media has become yet one more way to ensure we never forget.

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