Recollections and thoughts on the pending 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks are everywhere. It’s hard to visit a website, open a newspaper or listen to the radio without hearing about that fateful day which forever changed the United States and, in some way, the lives of millions around the world. All of this reflection is cathartic, healing, binding, and, fairly natural for our time, a lot of it is being done with the help of social media. But ten years ago, we didn’t have social media. Our collective grieving process is largely dependent on media that looked very different in 2001–and many didn’t exist at all.
How would 9/11 have been different if we had social media? The question is partly a lazy game of What If, but also points to a reassessment of how and why we respond to disasters and tragedies in an era of media saturation. In 2001, we didn’t live in a society where cell phones were a given, and even laptops were pretty novel. Now, smartphones are everywhere, making it easy to snap photos, video and audio and then post it all somewhere for the world to see. We tag photos on Flickr to make a crowd-sourced photo album, we can tell people we’re safe by updating a Facebook status, we can quickly spread both information and misinformation with Twitter. We get news and emergency alerts on our phones, GPS can help us locate someone, and you don’t need to paper a wall in Greenwich Village seeking information on missing persons. And then, we can easily support rescue and recovery efforts just by making a donation via text message, grieve together with online memorial spaces, and much more.
In contrast, when I was a college student at the University of Illinois back in 2001, I didn’t learn about what happened until at least an hour after the towers fell–and that was okay. I didn’t need to know everything instantly, as I feel I do now. For someone like me, who had never been to New York City or the Twin Towers, I was disconnected from the personal stories and the nature of the city. Today, how many thousands of faces, stories and voices would I have to choose from to help me understand 9/11 and the aftermath?
At the same time, I wonder what is lost by not knowing. In a way, I think that what happened inside the Towers, the Pentagon and the hijacked planes was something more complex than I could understand from an outside view, adding an air of sanctity to those experiences. Yet on the other hand, many remaining questions of what really happened should be answered, and, as we are reminded by recently released audio tapes, media can help.
I don’t know if the existence of more cell phone calls, texts, pictures or video would close the books on every 9/11 mystery or conspiracy theory, but based on how we react to news today, people would still be interested. Whether they would satisfy a voyeuristic curiosity, yield valuable information or do something else entirely will never be known. Of course I want answers about many things that happened that day, but, unlike ten years ago, there are some things I’m okay with not knowing.