If we’d had Twitter on 9/11 | npENGAGE

If we’d had Twitter on 9/11

By on Aug 9, 2010


I recently stood at the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site near Ground Zero, looking up to read the timeline on the wall. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, and it didn’t matter that many of us were quietly crying. It certainly didn’t feel like nearly 9 years had passed. Instead, the memory of each minute came back with almost tactile clarity. Three minutes here, 15 minutes there, and the layers of the tragedy unfolded again.

Maybe it’s because I spent so many of the dark hours that followed cut-off from my community – so disconnected from friends & family, on a business trip that mutated into a frantic 2-day race home through the desert Southwest – that I started to consider what it would have been like if we’d had Twitter on 9/11.

Because I can imagine how I’d have instinctively, obsessively pulled up my feed, to check the pulse of the planet again and again and again.

Yes, I know that this wasn’t possible: no iPhone could have been on the hotel nightstand, and Twitter didn’t exist. And even if they had, most likely Twitter’s over-capacity fail-whale would have been my first, frustrated experience. Bandwidth was a problem then, too.  International phone lines were jammed & I couldn’t reach my husband where he was working in France, to let him know I’d flown to LA, and I’d made it. I sent him an email because we didn’t have texting yet.

I can imagine that, if we’d had Twitter in that first few hours, I’d have seen an almost infinite list of short messages, of exclamation, of disbelief, of confusion, of fear, of rage, and sudden panic as friends could not be reached, did not reply as expected. I’d have echoed the grief of others. But then I’d have needed to get down to business. And I’d have used Twitter that morning and in the surreal days to come.

My coworker prompted me to call my Mom at once. And my Mom says she’ll never forget that her first knowledge of the events of the day came through my voice, whole and well, telling her to turn on the television.  I bet I would have repeated my coworker’s advice in a tweet: “Get word to your parents if you can. Tell them where you are. Wake them if you must. Let them hear it from you.”

My coworker and I were lucky enough to have rented a car upon arrival in LA on the 10th. Once we learned all flights were grounded, we quickly arrived at the decision to abandon our plans and drive back to Austin at once.  I imagine I’d have tweeted our intentions, and queried my network to determine whether anyone needed a ride on our backseat.

I’m sure we’d have had to put limits on the offer. For one, I’d already exchanged emails with a friend in Oregon who’d wanted us to come get him. It just seemed too far, and he found another carpool.

Also, we were two women undertaking a long journey through some pretty uninhabited area. I don’t know if we’d have welcomed a male passenger we only knew through social networking. We’d have needed to establish a certain level of trust with whomever we invited to share our car. And we would have needed to make that judgment call quickly, because we needed to get home. By now we both travel with a week’s worth of any medicines we need, and have back-up plans for our families and pets, but we were both pretty young and unprepared, and we needed to get home.

We ate quickly, and did get calls from a couple coworkers. My boss gave maternal advice. So many colleagues were stranded all over, in a situation repeated all over the world. Some took a wait-and-see approach, some were on the road already. I wonder if we’d have used a hashtag (like #ConvioWhereRU) to keep tabs on the diaspora.

Soon, from the vantage point of an overpass, I could see that we were alone on the highways of LA. Though it should have been rush hour, there was no traffic, no helicopters reporting on stalled cars or construction. A very unnatural calm had descended on a city that was missing an airplane full of its own. I guess it was a self-imposed lock-down, because nobody stopped us as we sped away. If we’d had Twitter, anxiety and nervous energy would have made obsessive tweeters out of many of us. It wasn’t yet my turn to drive, and I’d have been broadcasting observations all morning, with nothing better to contribute. Instead, all I could do was fidget over the tuner as radio stations faded in and out. No satellite radio yet.

I still hadn’t been able to talk to my husband, but my mother-in-law had gotten word to him that we were headed East on I-10, and he was able to track my progress via our online, real-time credit card statement. Now we are friends on Google Maps, and I can see his dot throughout  his evening commute. Back then, he took comfort when he saw a small charge at a RadioShack in Phoenix, and rightly guessed we’d stopped to pick up cell-phone chargers. Without mobile email or a service like Twitter, I had no idea if, unknown to us, coworkers sat stranded at the Phoenix airport.

We came across an expanse of parked airplanes in the desert, where these machines suffer least from the elements when not in use. All grounded. I’d have taken a picture and figured out TwitPic. We frequently had no radio stations. There was nothing else to do.

So essentially we were lonely, and desperate for connection in a world of upheaval. Not knowing if some of our connections were severed forever. Not knowing what we’d find over the horizon. We were surprised when we reached a roadblock just West of El Paso. We were interrogated by soldiers with automatic weapons. If I’d tweeted that, would it have tipped off the terrorists to take a side road?

I was also surprised that El Paso, TX is only the half-way point between LA and Austin. Another full day of being cut-off and numb. I felt starved for information like I’ve NEVER felt since.

Thinking about my experience now, and how it could have been so different just a few years later, I’m reminded of a story most adults know. I think of Star Wars. I picture Yoda stumbling as he experiences “a disturbance in the force” when an entire, populated planet is destroyed by the Death Star.  Or, more recently, how the native population in Avatar are connected to one another through a planetary-wide nervous system.

I think we’ve come to a point where “extrasensory perception” isn’t just some kind of magic or myth anymore.

Because things have changed. I remember the chair I was sitting in when I first scrolled through my Twitter feed and learned of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. I didn’t even think to turn on a TV or radio, because the people I follow – the people I trust – posted real-time updates. Pictures. Questions. And, so quickly, ways to help. Suddenly, it was odd to see a single update that wasn’t related to Haiti. They stuck out like a sore thumb. Like the one remote person on a conference call, jabbering on about some insignificant detail while everyone in the room reacts to a coworker passing out cold.

But if Twitter and other social networks actually provide us this kind of life-force-like sensitivity to each other now, is that good, or bad?

Emotions are contagious, after all. And I can’t think of another time in MY lifetime when the world’s emotions would have run hotter. Maybe to a Baby Boomer, it’d be like asking what it would have been like if they’d had Facebook when JFK was shot. Or for my grandparents, access to email when the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor.

I remember the fear & suspicion. Who could be trusted? Only the people you knew. Of course we relied on the kindness of strangers. Stories of heroes were everywhere. But there was an under-current of backlash, of lynch-mob mentality that grew for weeks in the wake of the 9/11. Rocks and worse hurled at mosques, and my friends who attended them. I think of some of the foul emails I got forwarded, and it makes me shiver. In a world with Twitter, I’m wary that our fight-or-flight, reflex-like reactions, passed as signals – uncensored – through our collective synapses, could be a very frightening thing.

At least it could be, in the absence of leadership.

To me, this isn’t just a mental exercise. To me, it illustrates a great societal need. Because even though I may hope that we’ll never face something like 9/11 again, I know that communities face intense, desperate challenges far too often. We NEED leadership that is present, day-in & day-out, interacting in our real lives where we live and breathe, commute & learn & work & rest. I do more than half of that via computer most days. And so I want constant reminders of our common goals where I’m at – online.

Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey (@JACK) recently said that social media is just the right technology to surface awareness of what needs to be done, what you are doing, and how. He specifies that these communications would be missing something if you include just the facts, but should also include the VALUES and SPIRIT behind what you’re doing.

And so I’m hoping that community leaders won’t dismiss social media as “just for fun” or optional. Most of the time, I do think of social media as fun. A place to listen & learn, and share what I can contribute. But now that I’ve thought about it, I add my encouragement to the voices of others (like Beth Kanter – @kanter – whom 350,000 of your peers follow for guidance in this area). Because nonprofit leaders and board members and volunteers who earn and keep the attention of their communities via social media are just a click away from leading me when my involvement is needed. In case of emergency, myself and many others will turn to those we trust to check the pulse of our world. I hope you’ll be there. I know I’ll need your reassurance, your caring diagnosis, and soon your call to wise action.

And if you want an early warning system in place, one that might alert you to an issue or event that could require your skills without much notice, consider that social networks have been shown to predict the spread of contagion in our populace. Yes, that study and also Google’s Flu Trends are all about physical illness. But what about societal illness, like prejudice, hate or violence? If people who are more socially-linked are truly faster to catch an infection, perhaps the most socially-linked leaders would be fastest to identify & respond to destructive impulses in our now more collective brain. Such leaders would be quick to remind us of what underlies our basic links to each other in a civil society.

Listen, I’m not just a worst-case-scenario person. I do remember good things in the days following 9/11. Our brave protectors, doing their jobs without knowing the fate of their own families. Neighbors and co-workers covering for each other, helping everyone cope. The line to donate blood. The candlelight services. The calls for calm. If we’d had Twitter on 9/11, I imagine there’d have been many sincere, thoughtful, helpful messages from trusted leaders & organizations, like @RedCross, @NotInOurTown, @ACLU, @NationalGuard. I like to think that many would have provided messages of comfort, and guidance, realtime monitoring, and clear calls to action that would have strengthened our communities in the face of the attack.

Think back, if you can: what kind of leadership could/did your organization share, through the media, through your supporters, or through direct services? Did you offer medical care? Did you help the displaced or the separated? Aid the newly unemployed? Comfort the scared & the grieving? I know we owe many of you our thanks, for knitting us back together.

Now think: if you needed to tomorrow, could/would you be able to do what you do best, given today’s technological and demographic trends? Would you be able to stand up for those scape-goated without cause? Could you illustrate your expertise & readiness regarding housing, nutrition, mobility, or animal care in the face of disaster? Would you have earned & cultivated an audience that could pass along your message? Could/would you communicate what needed to be done, and why & how? NOT forgetting to emphasize the VALUES behind your actions, in a clear & concise way? (One key reason I value Twitter is the 140 character limit – forcing ideas to coalesce in brief, omitting superfluous words. If you’ve read this far, you can see how Twitter constrains me.)

If you want to be there for us, but you don’t know how to proceed, there are many free & low-cost resources available. Just yesterday, I ate my lunch while reviewing the remarks shared freely on Twitter during a live Young Nonprofit Professionals chat (#ynpchat) featuring Rosetta Thurman (@rosettathurman). There are also many ongoing conversations under #nptweet focused on nonprofits and technology. Beth Kanter’s just published a new book that everyone’s devouring. Social Media is the topic at AFP meetings, free live webinars, and tweet-ups (face-to-face meetings).

So if your organization is present on Twitter, and you’d be willing and able to provide leadership in dire circumstances, for your local community or even the wider world, please list your Twitter handle in the comments section. I’d like to follow you, and I’d like others to follow you, too.  I’m creating a Twitter List, called “InCaseOfEmergency” and I hope it’s never needed. Yet I hope that, if needed, it could be of help. I thank you in advance for your preparedness, and your willingness to care for and lead us.

Oh, and hey, @twitter, we’re counting on you, too. You know you’re part of the fabric of our lives now, so don’t unravel on us, ok? Thanks for enabling so many new connections. Long may they strengthen us.


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