Friday, July 08, 2005

Terrorism - Aftermath Online

"When the train came to a standstill people were screaming... As little as 5 seconds later we were unable to see and had all hit the ground for the precious air remaining. We were all literally choking to death." Justin, from Pfff , London Blogger

I've been reading London Blogs today. Many are just extraordinary, such intense, vivid descriptions from a people known for their emotional restraint. I feel as if I've met these people now. We've connected. We're in each other's heads, yet thousands of miles apart.

The Internet has made the world a true global village. It's live 24/7, in all time zones. And when tragedy strikes, as it did here on September 11, 2001, Madrid in March 2004 and in London yesterday, the Internet can provide a window and an opportunity--like none other--to see and participate in history.

Internet technology has grown enormously since 9/11. On-the-scene reactions were included in stunning live and film TV footage and in standup interviews, but most firsthand stories came to us secondhand. Unless we knew someone at the scene, we were cut off from the immutable reality of the event -- the individual accounts.

Blogging was in its infancy in 2001, a techie thing, unknown by the general public. But there was one place people could congregate back then to chronicle their experiences, frantically search for missing colleagues and family members, and share their grief with one another, person to person, in real time -- online Message Boards -- especially those on AOL.

Each message board post was in a sense a kind of mini-blog, a firsthand narrative of shock and confusion and pain. And, as time went on, of outrage and opinions ... and memorials. In all my years creating "Community" for AOL, I believe we reached the pinnacle of its inherent value and purpose during the hours and days and weeks--and even months--following 9/11.

Many of us who couldn't get to our AOL desks in Dulles, Virginia just outside DC--or in Manhattan--that Tuesday morning worked virtually around the clock from our home computers. We scoured the message boards, finding dozens, hundreds, thousands of stories of terror, agony, loss, heroism, faith ... humanity.

The first post I read that September 11 is one I'll never forget, but not because it was a horror story. What haunts me instead is its very ordinariness, the irony of its pure reality -- a hopeless quest. And its embodiment of the power of online community. The poster doesn't comprehend the enormity of her situation, hasn't a clue that her tragic fate is sealed. She simply goes online as usual to seek answers, reassurance, contact ... clearly assuming she'll be there to get them.

"Something's wrong in our office, there's smoke everywhere. I can't find my supervisor. Does anybody know anyone from Cantor Fitzgerald in New York?" Several people replied, most urging her to "GET OUT OF THE TOWER!" -- but of course she never responded.

Cantor Fitzgerald, an accounting firm I never heard of before 9/11, lost 658 employees that day -- the most of any company housed in the World Trade Center. So that one small message board post haunts me even more, because its author is surely gone. Cantor Families Memorial

Along with many others, I supplied AOL's then Editorial Director Jesse Kornbluth, now Swami Uptown and Head Butler, with quotes from AOL message boards. It was so hard reading through so much personal grief and anger and pain. But it was also so necessary. And in the end, rewarding and uplifting. Jesse put many of those posts together in a book: Because We Are Americans: What We Discovered on September 11, 2001

A reviewer says,

"The point of this important book is not only to serve as a documentary of our reaction to the unfolding of events, but also to give us back OUR words. The quotes from the media tell much of the story...the online postings of "the rest of us" tell the remainder of that story. The editors of Because We Are Americans must've sifted through thousands of online postings to find just the right ones to represent what we all felt, and continue to feel. Read it, and you may see yourself in the words."

Fast forward to July 2005. Bloggers have taken center stage now. You can find London Bloggers sharing their experiences at

"I slowly got that pit in my stomach, the feeling that this is bigger than a power shortage. Those who had mobile service were murmurring "explosions" and "it is bombs?" Bob, from

And in case you think Message Boards have been replaced by blogs, think again. Messages For Loved Ones

An ocean--and some might say a language--may separate us, but the feelings expressed are universal. And I'm so glad I live in an age where I can share in them.

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