Technology and the way we remember 9/11: Ten years later

9/11 Memorial

The 9/11 Memorial. (http://www.911memorial.org/)

Ten years ago, I was a senior in high school when we heard the news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, followed by the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa. I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t watch as much news coverage as I wanted to while in school. My school — a small, private K-12 school — was trying to keep up a semblance of normalcy for the small kids. Classes and soccer practice went on as normal, but I remember feeling that it was somehow wrong to be running laps when so much was going on elsewhere in my state and country.

At home, I watched as much of the TV coverage as I could. The events of 9/11 weren’t the first news coverage I watched intently — I recall getting up early to watch Princess Diana’s funeral and later, coverage of the 2000 presidential election — but, like everyone, I knew 9/11 was something beyond anything the U.S. had ever experienced before. As I watched the replay of the images of smoke and terror, I recall feeling vulnerable. I knew with certainty that the world had changed. We would never go back to normal; there was a new normal now.

As we remember those events from the perspective of 10 years later, I am also struck by how much has also changed in terms of media and news coverage of such events, perhaps even partially in response to 9/11. On 9/11/01, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube. In my house, we had barely had an Internet connection installed (after years of begging on my part). On 9/11/01 there were, however, digital cameras, cell phones and compact video recorders. The major media had relied on content produced by amateurs before (such as the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination.) But the events of 9/11 were somehow different. Images and video from ordinary people who witnessed extraordinary events poured in to news media and out across the airwaves. People wanted to know — and the media wanted to tell us — what it was like, what the people at Ground Zero were experiencing first-hand.

Has this desire for near first-hand experience influenced the way we now consume news? Now, people tend to turn to Twitter before the TV. News of August’s earthquake on the East Coast made it onto Twitter long before official news outlets carried the news. Amateur video capturing eye-witness accounts of events — such as the tsunami in Japan — wind up on YouTube. People separated by tragedy connect via Facebook groups. Major media now actively seek out and curate samples of these first-hand accounts of newsworthy events as a regular feature, such as in CNN’s iReport project, which it dubs a compilation of “citizen journalism.” In a world that sometimes seems uncertain, now more than ever we reach out to each other through the use of these media and technologies.

Time marches on. The events of ten years ago sometimes seem like yesterday, but much has changed. As we remember 9/11, here are just some examples of the way technology has changed — or enhanced — the way we remember:

The National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum

The World Trade Center Memorial list the names of all those who died as a result of the terrorist attacks of 2001. But the 2,982 names are listed not in alphabetical or chronological order, but by “meaningful adjacencies” of where they were and who they were with when they died. Requests for adjacencies of significance to family members were also made by the loved ones of 9/11 victims. Designing a memorial this way is a daunting task. PBS’ NewsHour has a fascinating story about the creation of a special computer algorithm that allowed the memorial’s designers to honor all such requests. (Read it here: The Complexity of 2,982 Names on the September 11 Memorial.) Kiosks at the site, a smartphone app and a special website help loved ones and other visitors navigate the memorial to locate specific names.

LIFE.com

The online continuance of the once-venerable print magazine devoted to capturing images of life everywhere has curated multiple collections of images of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Among the most popular are They Were There: 9/11 Photographers and 9/11: The 25 Most Powerful Photos. I became aware of these collections because I follow LIFE.com on Twitter (@LIFE).

YouTube

As noted in its own blog, YouTube was not in existence in 2001, but over the years people have turned to YouTube to share their memories and experiences. Their channel, Reflections on Sept. 11: 10 Years Later, was created in conjunction with the New York Times (America’s newspaper of record; probably the epitome of traditional media) and features “special content from the New York Times, archived news broadcasts from September 2001, and your own personal stories and tributes.” According to the channel description, YouTube and the Times hope to create an enduring record of what took place 10 years ago through this YouTube channel. They are actively seeking videos that reflect on Sept. 11, 2001.

PBS NewsHour

PBS’ NewsHour asked people about how they think the United States has changed in the 10 years since the terror attacks of 9/11. Watch the videos here.

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