Americans returned to network television in the days following the tragedy, reassured by the familiar voices of the news anchors, overwhelmed by the repeated images of the airplane striking the second tower, engulfed in expressions of nationalism. The networks offered nonstop coverage without commercial interruption for more than 90 hours, the longest single block of news coverage in the history of American broadcasting, and viewership was at a record high. Yet the Net and the Web served personal needs that these more public channels of information could never touch.In recent years, some have expressed doubt that online communities are real communities with hearts and souls. They surely would not have expected the enormous outpouring of grief and caring that flowed through the Internet in the days following September 11. My colleagues describe how their friends and families began to circulate poetry as part of the process of coping with their feelings of powerlessness and anxiety. Net groups reached out to their members in New York and Washington, DC, or found themselves confronting feelings of enormous loss over the deaths of people they had only met online and never knew face to face. Fan discussion lists organized to donate blood or otherwise support the relief efforts. In my own case, my e-mail to my parents was recirculated to more distant family members or people in their church community.
And in this manner, messages-both profound and trivial-flowed from one enclave to another. Intellectuals sent analyses, churches prayers, militants hate mail, pacifists cries for peace and companies spam. Netscape demonstrated the reductive click-here menu-driven triviality of commercial interactivity, asking respondents to decide whether they felt sad, shocked or angry at what had occurred. We may never know how many people received the insightful words of Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary, who warned us that we could not bomb his homeland back to the Stone Age, because after decades of occupation it was already there, or the rather distasteful parody of bin Laden set to the verse of Doctor Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Despite the seeming exhaustiveness of the television newscasts, many used the Web to read foreign coverage and thus gain a better perspective on the United States’ position in the world. Many circulated petitions or words of protest or calls to arms, returning to an ideal of grass-roots democratic participation which stands in stark contrast to the ideas about military authority and elite decision-making that shaped the original Rand studies.
This was a new kind of national crisis and it demanded a new kind of emergency communications system. What Americans needed was a safety net, not an information superhighway. I think they found it was already there.