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What Would 9-11 Be Like in the Age of Social Media?

During the President's health care speech two days ago, the shared experience that is the realtime Internet reacted to a perfect Twitter-fodder event -- Joe Wilson's "you lie" outburst -- with a surprising amount of conversation about the real issue in the room, health care reform.

This realtime 24-7 Internet did not exist in 2001. We had the earliest versions of social media, instant messaging and blogs. But we had nowhere near the household use of many-to-many communication channels like Twitter and text messages. For the most part we spent 9-11 watching CNN. The Web in '09 is more about doing rather than watching. Twitter asks, "What are you doing RIGHT NOW?"

Here's an exercise for today: Ask the people on your social networks what they were doing today in 2001. Get ready for lots of responses.

What Would 9-11 Be Like in the Age of Social Media?

A look into the net reaction to more recent disasters offers some clues into what would happen in a 9/11-style attack today. Would Twitter be able to handle the scale? Would we all switch to Facebook? Even if overwhelmed, there's no doubt our real-time communication platforms would provide crucial information on survivors and those looking for loved ones, as Craigslist did after Hurricane Katrina.

Proto-blogger Dave Winer, who quite notably turned his Scripting blog into an outpost for 9-11 related information, made this prediction, in 2001.

"Someday soon every home will have a weblog, and we'll have great aggregation tools that allow us to quickly assemble lists of loved ones who survived. A new button on cellphones that says "I made it" and it flows the fact to all your concerned friends."

Here is how things would be different had the 9-11 planes been hijacked in 2009 instead of 2001.

1. Video, pics, and text from inside the World Trade Center towers

We would be faced with a avalanche of videos/tweets/pics from office workers still trying to figure out what was going on. As reader Jim Alden puts it, "#9-11 would have been a trending topic for 12 months." Eight years ago people didn't go around carrying a video camera in their pocket, much less an iPhone.

  2. Video from inside the planes

Passengers on United 93 used their cell phones to call their friends and family. In 2009, Virgin America has Wi-Fi. We would very likely get video clips from iPhoners on board, maybe even a live video stream.

3. More myths, but quicker myth-busting

Just like the "Jeff Goldblum is dead" tweets on the day Michael Jackson died, with big news comes fake news. But compared to the persistent rumors that the Pentagon was hit by a missile, or that Flight 93 was tailed by a fighter plane that shot it down, we'd have have an instant Internet response to every rumor, and misinformation dispelled by primary sources and citizen journalists on the scene.

4. More, more, more opinions

There was no real punditry on 09-11-01. We were too shocked to pontificate. Today, the real-time Internet enables mob mentality. There would've been a thousand times more calls to arms and pleas for peace. To take the lead on this massive online conversation, the White House staff, which now tweets from @whitehouse, would need to be forthcoming about what the hell was going on, rather than locking down communications the way the Bush administration did.

Would the proliferation of transparency and accountability that supposedly comes along with widespread social media have prevented 9-11 from happening? Almost certainly not. But most likely, had we had the communication capabilities that we do now, we would have more evidence, more primary sources, more insights from random people not parked in front of CNN's cameras. If nothing else, a lot of us would have felt less powerless and alone.

What Would 9-11 Be Like in the Age of Social Media?
Photo courtesy Bill Jensen

When there is a real revolution going on, (...) net value is useless, since the society before and the society after are too different to be readily compared. -- Clay Shirky

You can follow us on Twitter at @alexiatsotsis and @laweekly respectively.

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