On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was filing the purchase and sale agreement on my husband's and my first home. It was at about 9:03 that I shook hands with our realtor, who had just arrived at work. Neither of us had any idea what was happening in New York.
Driving to the mall afterward, I turned on the radio. Music and driving are inextricably linked for me; except that morning, there was no music. As I flipped stations, I started to tune in to the fact that these were not ads I was hearing; this was news, of the kind I probably needed to pay attention to.
I was still in the car when the Pentagon was hit. Dazed by what I had been hearing, I'd taken a series of wrong turns. “My God,” I remember thinking, “we're under attack.” I finally recognized the road I was on, and made my way to the mall.
There, I stood with maybe a dozen people in front of the Sears TV display. Dozens of sets displayed the crash scenes over and over and over. Two of the men standing near me were construction workers. “If those towahs are made of rebah, they'll go right ovah,” one commented to the other in his thick Maine accent.
I left Sears to find a pay phone to call my dad, at that time still working as a federal civilian occupational safety inspector in Boston. His building had just been given the order to evacuate. I wished him a safe drive home, and we hung up.
I wondered how my uncle, a US Customs agent assigned to JFK (but whose headquarters was at #6 WTC), was that morning. It would be another 24 hours before my aunt was able to find out that he was fine, and to relay the message to the rest of us.
In 2001, these were the connections we had: we stood shoulder to shoulder, watching news media feed us images and information that none of us could comprehend. We discussed it all in the context of the jobs we had and the lives we led. We used pay phones or office or home land lines to call loved ones. Those of us with family in New York could not get through, so once we'd made those connections, once we'd heard each other's voices, we fell back on email.
Ten years later the communication landscape is very different. I would've pulled out my cell phone to call my dad, and probably a few other people. My aunt might have been able to reach her husband via text message, within just a few hours rather than 24. It goes without saying that the Twitter crisis community would've been in full force, perhaps even overloaded Twitter servers at least temporarily.
Of course, as many things as the news media got wrong that day, Twitter and other social media would only have made worse. We saw that in 2008 during the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, as well as during mass demonstrations in Iran in 2009, Toronto and London in 2010, riots in Vancouver and London this year, the “Arab Spring,” and even natural disaster responses.
Social media is as unpredictable as any crowd, so it's little wonder that authorities' first reaction is to control as much as possible – as Bay Area Rapid Transit decision-makers did in August. Faced with protests over the police-related shooting of a homeless man, they wanted to avoid the chance that protesters would be “inspired” to commit similar violence already taking place in London.
In reactive mode, though, it's easy to miss what everyday citizens take for granted: the majority of us use social media to make connections with one another. Those connections, however loose, can mean everything, whether you're an office worker buried under the rubble of an earthquake-stricken building – or a new mother buried under the overwhelming sense that you have no idea what you're doing.
The connections we make (on or offline) can save our lives, in small ways as well as obvious ways. The right connections validate our experiences, set us on the right path when we stray, give us advice that fits our situation, point us to the resources we need to do something right.
Conversely, the wrong connections tear us down, lead us astray, give us bad advice and don't come through for us when we really need them.
But human beings have always been free to make their own connections, to work at strengthening or breaking bonds as we need. For government agencies to step in and decide for us how and with whom to connect is the very kind of “nanny state” so many of us abhor.
Instead, government might choose to lead by example. As I wrote last month in the Dancing with Digital Natives blog (my book chapter “Native in Blue” discussed the changes which digital natives would bring to policing):
Perhaps what police and politicians fear is that the answers to any questions they ask will reflect problems they can’t control or at the very least, can’t talk about. Jobs creation, racism, religious tension and anger towards the “welfare class” or immigrants are not topics that police typically address, nor that politicians typically take responsibility for.
So what should they do with the answers?
Use them to learn, not about the problems, but about the community itself. Notice who does the talking, who does the organizing, who does the listening but then acts. Invite community members to continue the conversations offline, both one on one and in groups. Notice social dynamics there, too. Don’t just “engage” – build relationships. Through those, civic pride.
Remember the way we all came together in the days, weeks and months following 9/11? We flew our American flags with pride – they were everywhere, remember? – chanted “USA! USA!” at ballparks and concerts, treated each other with more kindness and genuinely made an effort to help each other out.
And at a time when many of us feel that our government leaders have failed us, we should remember the way we felt on 9/11, the way we sought each other out to cry and talk and not be alone with our thoughts and fears. We should be using the tools we have, again both online and off, to encourage our communities to reach out and connect with us – to come together rather than splinter apart.
This month I'm not asking “Where were you on 9/11/01?” but rather, “Where are you on 9/11/11?” Where are you, what are you doing, what connections will you make that day – and how will you use them to build your community stronger?
- Social Rioting: Are we asking the wrong questions?
- Law Enforcement Social Media Use
- The New Yorker: Small Change
About The Author:
Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in law enforcement and digital forensics and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.