We’d just finished watching a DVD of “The Social Network” on the evening of May 1. Routinely, we checked the news online before getting ready for bed — and learned that America had finally caught up with Osama bin Laden. Like every other American for whom Sept. 11, 2001 is seared into memory, I had a sense of relief and satisfaction that this epic murderer hadn’t died of old age in some sanctuary.
I also reflected, as I watched a streaming broadcast of BBC News on my computer, on the continuing evolution in news over the past decade — accelerating changes in the ways we experience and participate in the flow of news and information in a digital age.
What’s changed most since 2001 are the spread of wireless data communications and the rise of robust social networks, but the outlines of where we were headed were clear even then. The 9/11 attacks brought emerging possibilities fully to the surface, as I wrote in my 2004 book We the Media.
By the turn of the new century, the key building blocks of emergent, grassroots journalism were in place. The Web was already a place where established news organizations and newcomers were plying an old trade in updated ways, but the tools were making it easier for anyone to participate. We needed a catalyst to show how far we’d come. On September 11, 2001, we got that catalyst in a terrible way.
I was in South Africa. The news came to me and four other people in a van, on the way to an airport, via a mobile phone. Our driver’s wife called from Johannesburg, where she was watching TV, to say a plane had apparently hit the World Trade Center. She called again to say another plane had hit the other tower, and yet again to report the attack on the Pentagon. We arrived at the Port Elizabeth airport in time to watch, live and in horror, as the towers disintegrated.
Had I been there today, I’d have gotten more than a phone call. I’d have been pulling information from the Net via a mobile device that could provide everything from voice to video. And I’d have been checking my Twitter feed.
For plenty of people in 2011, the news of bin Laden’s death came via Twitter and Facebook, currently the most powerful social networks around. Indeed, rumors spread widely on Twitter before President Obama’s official announcement. But Twitter for me (and Facebook for many others) was a value-adding system once the basic facts were known. I relied, as I increasingly do in breaking news events, on the people I follow on Twitter to provide links to the best coverage from traditional media, as well as links to a variety of other sources.
The best traditional media organizations did their jobs in the usual way as the bin Laden story became the story of the day. They covered the immediate news, found compelling video — the crowds in front of the White House were a favorite — and interviewed experts for perspective.
Back to 2001:
The next day our party of journalists, which the Freedom Forum, a journalism foundation, had brought to Africa to give talks and workshops about journalism and the Internet, flew to Lusaka, Zambia. The BBC and CNN’s international edition were on the hotel television. The local newspapers ran considerable news about the attacks, but they were more preoccupied with an upcoming election, charges of corruption, and other news that was simply more relevant to them at the moment.
What I could not do in those initial days was read my newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, or the The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, or any of the other papers I normally scanned each morning at home. I could barely get to their web sites because the Net connection to Zambia was slow and trans-Atlantic data traffic was overwhelming as people everywhere went online for more information, or simply to talk with each other.
Now here’s real change. We no longer subscribe to those newspapers (apart from the Chronicle and Times on Sundays), because we get most of our newspaper journalism online. The reason is that broadband has become much more widespread and robust, even though it’s lagging in the U.S. compared to the rest of the developed world. The fiber backbones are reaching everywhere now.
I could retrieve my email, however, and my inbox overflowed with useful news from Dave Farber, one of the new breed of editors.
Then a telecommunications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Farber had a mailing list called “Interesting People”30 that he’d run since the mid-1980s. Most of what he sent out had first been sent to him by correspondents he knew from around the nation and the world. If they saw something they thought he’d find interesting, they sent it along, and Farber relayed a portion of what he received, sometimes with his own commentary. In the wake of the attacks, his correspondents’ perspectives on issues ranging from national-security issues to critiques of religion became essential reading for their breadth and depth. Farber told me later he’d gone into overdrive, because this event obliged him to do so.
“I consider myself an editor in a real sense,” Farber explained. “This is a funny form of new newspaper, where the Net is sort of my wire service. My job is to decide what goes out and what doesn’t…Even though I don’t edit in the sense of real editing, I make the choices.”
Dave Farber still makes these choices on the IP list. It’s still a must-read source of news and wisdom for me and the legions of people who continue to follow this particular wire service.
The value of this service — we now tend to call it curation and aggregation — wasn’t as clear a decade ago as it is today, however. We are overwhelmed with information today, vastly more so than in 2001. As I discuss in my new book, Mediactive, one of our most pressing issues is how we deal with that flood of data. Dave Farber is a curator and aggregator. The people I follow on Twitter, especially in special lists I’ve created for people I consider experts in specific fields, are another curated and aggregated space.
One of the emails Farber sent, dated September 12, still stands out for me. It was an email from an unidentified sender who wrote: “SPOT infrared satellite image of Manhattan, acquired on September 11 at 11:55 AM ET. Image may be freely reproduced with ‘CNES/SPOT Image 2001’ copyright attribution.” A web address, linking to the photo, followed. The picture showed an ugly brown-black cloud of dust and debris hanging over much of lower Manhattan. The image stayed with me.
Here was context.
It took almost no time for the Net to tell us about the various satellite images from Pakistan, showing the bin Laden compound and its surroundings.
Back in America, members of the then nascent weblog community had discovered the power of their publishing tool. They offered abundant links to articles from large and small news organizations, domestic and foreign. New York City bloggers posted personal views of what they’d seen, with photographs, providing more information and context to what the major media was providing.
“I’m okay. Everyone I know is okay,” Amy Phillips wrote September 11 on her blog, “The 50 Minute Hour.”31 A Brooklyn blogger named Gus wrote: “The wind just changed direction and now I know what a burning city smells like. It has the smell of burning plastic. It comes with acrid brown skies with jet fighters flying above them. The stuff I’m seeing on teevee is like some sort of bad Japanese Godzilla movie, with less convincing special effects. Then I’m outside, seeing it with my naked eyes.”
If Twitter and Facebook took on more of this function in 2011, that reflected the immediacy — the ease of use and especially the social context — of these new services, which didn’t even exist in 2001.
In one sense, the rise of these social networks is a step back. Facebook and Twitter are private companies with their own agendas. While they are superbly engineered tools that provide users fantastic capabilities, what we put into those services is, in the end, owned by those services. Our words and pictures and videos are only part of what we put in; the social connections are even more important, and we don’t own those when we live in others’ universes.
We would have had a much different media experience a decade ago if AOL or Microsoft had succeeded in what they were trying to do in the 1990s: Make our online experience a universal walled garden. Facebook, more so than Twitter, aims to be precisely that in this new era. If we allow that to happen, we will literally be turning over a significant part of our history to a private company that operates in its own best interests, not ours.
The promise of the Internet was flowering in 2001. We saw only the possibilities and the immense freedom of this emerging sphere for communications and collaboration.
The vision we shared then is in some real jeopardy today. Governments and private companies scheme to wrest control from us at the edges of the networks and pull it back into the center, where it manifestly should not belong. They may win.
A decade from now, we’ll surely experience another major event with newer media we cannot even imagine today. I hope we’ll be using tools that renew the Internet’s promise — technologies and policies that honor a simple notion, of genuine freedom to learn, create and collaborate.