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9/11/01 The Day Blogs Came Into Their Own

The next 9/11 is here. I’m having a very difficult time facing up to the enormity of what happened 365 days ago. I have been busying myself posting unrelated Blogcritics stories knowing full well what is there just outside of my attention.

I was talking to an editor friend in New York this morning who said all of the activity: the scurrying about and speechifying and frenetic commemorating failed dismally to conjure up the reality of what happened one year ago. The only thing that had brought back the feelings and reality of that day for him was being jolted out of bed by a bagpipe band marching down the street outside his window at the alarming hour of 5:30am. That electrifying racket brought back a few memories.

In an effort to force at least some of that reality back into my own mind, let’s take a look at the impact 9/11 had on bloggers and bloggers-to-be, creating a new kind of personal journalism and casting their efforts and capabilities into the media spotlight as never before.

    “Big-time Journalism will never go away — not should it. But thanks to what we’re doing here, it will never be the same. The big crossover will happen when one or more BigPubs starts treating blogs as sources, and not just feature fodder. Sooner or later, they’ll have to. We know too damn much, and we’re too damn good at telling each other about it.”
    Doc Searls

Before we consider the galvanizing impact of September 11 on bloggers, let’s take a step back to a more innocent time – December 2000 – to consider how blogging was then perceived by one of our premier bloggers, Ken Layne.

In his OJR article “Media Web Logs For Fun and No Profit,” Layne begins:

    For two weeks, I’ve been trying to write about the Blogger phenomenon. Make coffee, turn on the computer, check e-mail, stare at Microsoft Word for a while, and look at some Web sites for inspiration.

    And then, instead of writing this column, I would add a bunch of nonsense to my Blogger buddy. It’s freakin’ addictive. So, if you write for a living, don’t read this, and don’t try the Web-log game. It’s too easy, and it will Suck Your Soul Away.

What’s most interesting about Layne’s summary of the blog metier at that point in time is his casual tone. The river of blog was a meandering, desultory affair at that point. The technical aspects – the ease of operation, Blogger’s end-around HTML – were virtually the same as they are now, as was the addictive nature of instant public communication, but the driving impetus, the compulsion to convey something really IMPORTANT wasn’t there at the time.

    My Blogger experiment was supposed to end with the political conventions. Like many exhausted reporters, I took a long holiday and for a while. But instead of letting the Blogger buddy die, it became a sort of open e-mail to friends and editors. It gets boring, sitting in some foreign Internet cafe and typing the same letter to a dozen people. Much easier to type it once, let Blogger throw it on a Web site, and go back to the beach.

    You can blog from work, from a computer at a friend’s house, anyplace equipped with a Web browser. And if you find yourself doing this, you’re already doomed. I saw some weirdo blogging from the display computers at Circuit City the other day. It took all my willpower to keep from going to another computer and blogging a quick sentence: ‘I cannot believe there’s some jackass blogging from a Circuit City display computer.’

    But beyond the ease of blogging, why would anyone do it? I mean, unless somebody is paying you to write a Web log?

After running through the benefits of blogging for journalists (fun, exposure, centralized archive of work), Layne concludes,

    What can you expect from a personal Web log? Beyond the aforementioned addiction problem, you shouldn’t expect anything except a little fun, a better connection with readers, and maybe the chance to easily run off some ideas that may or may not deserve ‘official’ treatment from a paying gig. It’s highly unlikely a Web log will earn any money; you can join an Internet advertising network, but don’t expect more than a few bucks a month unless you’re Matt Drudge.

The last part sure hasn’t changed, but blogging has become a dead serious exchange of ideas, opinions and information since 9/11/01.

September 11
“Look at that destruction, that massive, senseless, cruel loss of human life, then I ask you to look in your hearts and see there is no room for neutrality in the issue of terrorism. You’re either with civilization or with terrorists.”
Rudolf Giuliani to the United Nations General Assembly, October 1, 2001

American bloggers passionately chose civilization as hell unfolded. A reminder of that day:

    On a transcendently clear, balmy morning, 19 Islamic extremists believed to be affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network hijacked four airliners and perverted them into missiles to attack the symbolic and very real centers of American – and in turn Western – financial, cultural and military hegemony.

    Over 3,000 souls – including hundreds of rescue workers – from over 80 nations were lost, the preponderance literally disintegrated before a horrified, transfixed TV audience’s gaze. The 110 story twin towers of the World Trade Center, New York’s tallest buildings and the workplace of over 40,000 people, were impaled from the air and fatally injected with spite and hellfire jet fuel: American Airlines flight 11, scheduled Boston to Los Angeles carrying 92 people, struck north tower floors 95-102 at 8:48 a.m.; United Airlines flight 175, scheduled Boston to Los Angeles carrying 65, struck south tower floors 86-92 at 9:03 a.m.

    The inferno created by the raging jet fuel weakened the steel girders causing first the south (9:50 a.m.), then the north (10:29 a.m.) towers to crumble pathetically upon themselves generating great toxic tsunamis of gray ash and debris. A third building, 7 World Trade Center, collapsed in sympathy later that afternoon; there was extensive damage from the deluge of debris to all buildings surrounding the WTC complex. The horrifying visions of the planes embedding themselves in the buildings, the effulgence of flames springing from the wounds, and the subsequent implosion of the buildings were rerun on TV over and over before billions of eyes, burning themselves indelibly into the collective retina, focusing attention on one time and place as perhaps never before in world history.

    The redoubtable command center of American military might, Washington’s geometrically named Pentagon, was struck by another airliner-turned-missile – American Airlines flight 77, scheduled Washington to Los Angeles carrying 64, struck at 9:43 a.m. – killing almost 200 more. A fourth plane, presumably headed for another Washington-area governmental target, slammed into the earth in rural southwestern Pennsylvania – United Airlines flight 93, scheduled Newark to San Francisco carrying 45, crashed at 10:10 a.m. – killing all aboard after passengers learned of the fates of the three other hijacked planes via cell phone, resolved to not become a fourth implement of untold destruction, and physically attacked the hijackers with the fateful last words of passenger Todd Beamer, “Okay, let’s roll,” trailing off into history.

Suddenly, the ease of public communication afforded by Blogger, Dave Winer’s Radio UserLand and others had an imperative. Thousands of bloggers, like Layne, became war correspondents, became “war bloggers.” Thousands more became bloggers specifically in reaction to 9/11. That lazy river, the Big Bloggy, turned torrential.

The next day, September 12, Amy Harmon wrote an article for the NY Times, “Web Offers Both News and Comfort,” looking at the behavior of the Web in general on the 11th.

    The major news Web sites were quickly overloaded. Many links to the not-so-major news Web sites stopped working. But more than news, what people all over the world craved in the wake of yesterday’s terrorist attacks was connection to each other, and many of them found that most easily achieved by going online.

    ….At www.Scripting.com, a site normally devoted to technical discussion of Web programming, people sent in pictures of the World Trade Center buildings collapsing and reports. “There is soot falling out of the sky outside my apartment in Brooklyn,” wrote one contributor, Cameron Barrett.

    Early in the day, Dave Winer, the San Francisco-based owner of the site, posted a picture of his father, who he feared may have been near the Trade Center. Finally, late in the afternoon, he wrote that he had heard from him. “My dad is O.K.”

    “We want to figure out why it happened, what it means and where we’re going to go from here,” said Mr. Winer. “The world’s changed, and it’s all very fresh. We need to talk about it.”

In addition to Winer’s contributions, the article notes the importance of blogs within the framework of the greater Web:

    “This unfathomable tragedy reminds me of the original reason the Internet was invented in 1969 — to serve as a decentralized network that couldn’t be brought down by a military attack,” said Rogers Cadenhead, who said he set up the WTCattack list because most of the Web sites reporting news had ground to a halt. “Amateur news reporters on weblogs are functioning as their own decentralized media today, and it’s one of the only heartening things about this stomach-turning day.”

There is a satisfying philosophical parallel between the individualist ethos of many bloggers and the systemic success of the “decentralized network” that allowed them to blog on through the chaos and the traffic jams that brought down the major media sites on the day they were needed most. A Wired News article the same day, “Who Said the Web Fell Apart?” addressed that very matter.

    People have complained that sites for the big news organizations, like CNN, The New York Times, and the BBC, were unavailable for much of the day due to high traffic. And what newspapers and portals were available simply ran wire copy. But under the radar, the Net responded magnificently; it was just a matter of knowing where to look.

    ….Dave Winer’s Scripting News, in particular, sparkled. As news sites scrambled to post information, Scripting News had a wealth of material, and for most of the morning was an outstanding place to go for breaking news about the unfolding tragedies.

    “The Web has a lot more people to cover a story,” Winer explained on the site on Wednesday. “We, collectively, got on it very quickly once it was clear that the news sites were choked with flow and didn’t have very much info…. There’s power in the new communication and development medium we’re mastering. Far from being dead, the Web is just getting started.”

A week later technology specialist and blogger Nick Denton wrote an analysis of 9/11 from the blog perspective for the Guardian.

    The suicide attacks on the World Trade Centre, and the aftermath of the disaster, have been a defining test of old and new media. Despite my own involvement in the Internet, I did instinctively turn to television for the first news. But when I tried the online news sites from the likes of the CNN or BBC, they were slow or unavailable.

    And over the past week, the pictures of crashing planes, while dramatic, have become repetitive. The newspaper front pages have captured the mood, but I cannot wade through the acres of print they devote to the continuing crisis. The online news sites are useful for a quick check of breaking news, but I am looking for something more.

    And that I have been finding on weblogs. Some, such as Kottke.org and Dave Winer’s Scripting.com, are well-established technology weblogs which have interrupted normal service to bring their take on the crisis. A few, such as wtc-filter, Matt Welch’s “warblog”, and the Guardian’s own crisis special, are instant publications set up to cover the story.

Denton mentions that many people had you-are-there experiences on or around 9/11 that were only related via blogs, and that, “Only through the human stories of escape or loss have I really felt the disaster.”

Denton also sees blogs as an antidote to the impersonal, imperious tone of the major media.

    I like the tone of modest inquiry that the best of the bloggers adopt. I enjoy the rants, although the mainstream media has not been short of these. Ken Layne has been on particularly good form: “We can be greedy, dumb and sloppy. But we made the nation that is the defining nation of this world. There’s a reason our crappy movies and pop songs are worshipped in every corner of the world: everybody wants to be in this country, with their whole lives wide open.” Lovely.

    But most of all, I like the complexity of opinion and information. Most of the key weblogs have linked to commentary by sympathetic Afghans, to articles by Robert Fisk, the Independent’s resident Arabist. Jason Kottke pointed to an online guide to Arab-Americans, which provided vital information too basic for newspapers to carry.

He concludes,

    The web, with its unmoderated discussion boards, is hosting the most hateful rants against Arabs, Moslems, and anyone else associated with the suicide bombers. But it is also, through weblogs, uncovering a wealth of information, a variety of opinion, and a subtlety of judgment. In weblogs, the web has become a mature medium.

A mature medium with very much something to say: a furious ghost to fuel its machine.

The following day, 9/21, Thomas Nord, in the Louisville Courier-Journal, covered similar ground in “Blogs Capture More Personal Stories of Tragedy.”

    George Weld was riding his bicycle through the streets of lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, heading to his job as an Internet architect. But he suddenly found himself thrust into a new role — online journalist.

    As usual, Weld could see the World Trade Center as he followed his route from his apartment to his SoHo office. From off in the distance came the sound of an explosion. Riding alongside on her bike, Weld’s wife, Jennifer Tracy, suggested that it might be some sort of construction accident.

    But then thick black smoke started pouring from the center’s north tower, and people started running. Instinctively, Weld grabbed the tiny Canon ELF digital camera he carries with him and started taking pictures. In the past, Weld might have sold the pictures to a newspaper, or simply saved them for their historic value. Instead, he put them online.

    ….beyond giving relevancy to Web sites maintained by mainstream news outlets and online magazines, the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Washington, D.C., area have created a new niche for the growing community of Web diarists like Weld.

    ….”I started it just under a year ago, but it felt aimless,” said Weld, who’s 29. “Suddenly, I felt like it had purpose.”

The same day Charles Cooper also sang the praises of blog performance on 9/11 in “When Blogging Came of Age”:

    If you were scouring the Internet for news and context during those first terrible hours, you could have done a lot worse than eavesdropping on the free-wheeling mini-universe of Web logs chockablock with first-hand info and spirited commentary about what was going on.

    Sometimes they were raw, sometimes they were pretentious and sometimes they were flat-out wrong–I’d dare say that many times it was all three combined!–but the information was fresh and real and unmediated by any intervening institutions.

Cooper lists Dave Winer, Jim Romenesko’s Media News, Mike Reilley’s Journalist’s Toolbox site (not a blog but an amazing resource), and the Eatonweb blog directory site among his favorites. He had, in fact, been converted:

    All in all, I’ve revised my earlier views about the usefulness of blogging, moving full circle from my earlier position. Yes, there’s still a lot of chaff out there, and it’s the reader’s responsibility to sift and choose. But in the best spirit of grassroots participation, these new information gatekeepers are helping to rewrite the rules.

As the recent glut of old media stories about blogs indicates: the rules have been rewritten. While John Scalzi might disagree (see Scalzi debate re blog influence, numbers, etc., starting here), many believe blogs are reaching a point of critical mass where their quality and sheer numbers are forcing their influence onto the mass media. There is no turning back.

A last look at 9/11 and blogs appeared October 14 in the Florida Times-Union, Anick Jesdanun’s “In Online Logs, Web Authors Personalize Attacks, Retaliation,” the title of which about sums it up. Most significantly, the story marked the earliest major reference I found to InstaPundit’s Glenn Reynolds.

    Soon after retaliatory strikes began, Glenn Reynolds went online to urge extra vigilance, criticize peace protesters and link to a song, “I Wanna Bomb Osama.” Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, did it on his Web journal, ”InstaPundit.”

    ….”The mainstream media will run a story saying a bunch of people protested and quote them,” said Reynolds, the law professor. ”I can take the quote and pick it apart and say it doesn’t mean anything.”

    ….A Weblog’s readership is typically measured in the dozens or hundreds, usually friends, families, colleagues or other Webloggers. But since Sept. 11, many Weblogs [have] reported several times their normal readership.

    ”Some news sites started to provide links to blogs related to the attacks, and a whole new audience has been created for them,” said Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Almost unbroken since September 11, a steady stream of urgent news relating to the attacks and their complex aftermath has given the blogs an electric urgency: a compelling raison d’être that has driven bloggers, their readers, and perhaps soon, the mass media into a new form of interactive journalism, both intensely personal and utterly public.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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