Friday, September 09, 2011

On 9/11, the Seeds of the Infinite Grapevine

technology/09bits-911/09bits-911-blog480.jpg" alt="Downtown Manhattan, Sept. 12, 2001." width="480" height="312" />Joshua Brustein/The New York TimesDowntown Manhattan, Sept. 12, 2001.

One of the last times I remember actually waiting for film to be developed was in mid-September 2001. I was a college student living in downtown Manhattan, and had taken dozens of photographs from the roof of my dorm, where I watched the World Trade Center collapse, and then from ground zero and Union Square, where I spent most of the next day. When I ran out of film, I dropped it off at a storefront on Waverly Street and waited.

If I had been in the same situation 10 years later, I would have naturally jumped into the role of citizen journalist. But that phrase wasn’t even in the vernacular in 2001. (The technology/forget-f-stops-these-cameras-have-area-codes.html">first time that The Times used the phrase was two years later, in an article about the nascent world of camera phones, which were so new at the time that one of the sources questioned whether they would really catch on.) When my photographs were ready, I showed them around a little, and put them in a box. My tiny part of the story did not go beyond my tiny circle of friends and family.

This is not just a lament for a lost chance at self-expression. In the last several years, major events in Mumbai, Iran and across the Middle East have shown that technical tools that allow people to share their experiences in real time play a real role in deepening our understanding of these events, and can change the course of the events themselves. Common devices and services, like Twitter and smartphones, make it possible to get a true sense of what is happening in chaotic events where dozens of people are giving the world their confused versions of events in real time.

“If you see 30 or 40 people describing what was happening it almost becomes a form of situational awareness, like you’re floating above it in a helicopter,” said Andy Carvin, a strategist for social media at National Public Radio who has been active in following the Arab Spring.

The 9/11 attack was one of the last major world events that wouldn’t be accompanied by this torrent of online communications. But while the experience of 9/11 would have been very different had it happened after the development of our current create-while-consuming media ethos, the seeds of change were clearly visible 10 years ago.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History began collecting people’s images from 9/11 soon after the attacks. For the first time, curators noticed a large number of digital images mixed in with photographs taken on film. It was clear that a major change was going on in the way that major events were photographed, said Shannon Perich, an associate curator at the museum. Everything was about to speed up.

“We quickly understood that this was a transitional moment,” she said. “We understood what digital photography meant to the world at that point.”

Mr. Carvin was working near the White House on Sept. 11, 2001. After being evacuated from his office, he arrived at his apartment and immediately sat down at his computer and started an e-mail discussion group encouraging people to share information and impressions about what was happening. About 1,500 people signed up; for much of the day people were sending about an e-mail per minute, said Mr. Carvin.

These e-mail groups were the first time that Mr. Carvin organized an online community intended to exchange information in real time. Since then, he has gained a certain renown for doing similar work on Twitter during the Arab Spring protests.

The basic activity was the same 10 years ago, said Mr. Carvin; what was missing was the scale. After 9/11, the avenues through which these messages traveled were only semi-public. Someone had to know to look for an e-mail list or message board. Now the tools are integrated into their daily lives.

“Back then, the grapevines were somewhat limited,” said Mr. Carvin. “If you reached out through Listservs or blogs, you might be able to get one or two degrees of separation of people passing the information along, which might add up to the hundreds or thousands of people. But now, with Facebook and Twitter, those are essentially infinite grapevines.”

These trends have given us an intimate look into events, often violent ones, that have historically seemed relatively distant. Of course, not everyone sees this as a good thing.

Katharine Weymouth, publisher and chief executive of the Washington Post Company, said at a conference Wednesday at the Newseum that she was grateful that such technology had not been developed in 2001. Watching video shot from inside the Twin Towers would have been too traumatic, she said.

“Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and all the technologies that have yet to be invented make all these events more real, and more horrific. Television pales in comparison,” she said, according to an account of the event posted on, a journalism Web site.

Mr. Carvin agrees that there would be a level of added trauma had people trapped in the World Trade Center been sending updates in real time, but he says he believes that this may have been accompanied by a certain catharsis. Whether this is true or not is debatable. But one thing is clear: there is no turning back.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 9, 2011

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Mr. Carvin was working near the Pentagon on 9/11.

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