9/11: What if…

Sep 10

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Stairs

Photo by Loimere

It’s a question I hadn’t really pondered until this moment. And now that it has been suggested, I can’t stop thinking about it.

I’ve actually been avoiding the avalanche of 9/11 coverage over the last week. Not because I don’t care, or don’t think it is important to remember, but because I do. I feel in some way, that watching those towers fall over and over again may numb the visceral memories I have from that day, and there is some pain that should never be numbed.

But the question haunting me now is what 9/11 would have been like if social media existed then as it does today. What if part of our national memory this week was tweets, pictures, videos and status updates from inside the Twin Towers. How would that have changed that day for those of us who were not there, and did not know anyone who perished? Would sharing that experience through social media created a different, more personal connection with the tragedy or just the illusion of connection? And would that connection or illusion change anything?

It was the comments of Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth at the Knight-Batten Awards and Symposium for Innovations in Journalism on Wednesday that sparked my own questions. Weymouth, quoted in a New York Times column and on Poynter.org, said she was grateful these technologies didn’t exist:

Most of us learned about the events of that day in one of four ways — by television, by radio, by newspaper, or by a phone call from a friend. And while we are all incredibly grateful for the ways in which technology has enhanced our lives, I think we are also grateful that we didn’t live through 9/11 with all of that technology.

We didn’t have to see live video footage shot from inside the collapsing buildings and uploaded onto YouTube. Cellphones didn’t have cameras back then. … Can you imagine how horrifying it would have been if we had tweets from the victims on the planes or in the offices, or if they had posted to their Facebook pages?

… 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.

I understand the point Weymouth is making. But I don’t agree. Her argument seems to be that since social media would have made the experience “more real and more horrific” for those of us who weren’t there, it’s better that it didn’t exist.

The value of social media and the role it plays in relationships, news and society is debated on a daily basis. But as I sit on my nice warm sofa 10 years later with my family, my home, and my city completely intact, the idea of saying “I’m glad social media wasn’t around to make 9/11 more horrific for me” rings hollow at best and heartless at worst.

I don’t want to over romanticize the role social media could have played in our understanding of 9/11. The destruction of cell phone towers, the overload on others as well as lack of power, make the possibility of communication questionable. Precious last words from victims would have been mingled and possibly lost in a tsunami of “I can’t believe this is happening” tweets and updates.

But in our nation’s collective conscious, we see the images of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania from the outside. Through social media the images seared in our minds could be different. We would see 9/11 from the inside looking out. Under the desk. In the stairwell. On the plane.

Does this matter? I believe so. Whether true connection or just illusion, we would know stories that were never told. And the reality of that day would be written by the slain, connecting us in a profound way that would never grow numb.

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