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Five Years Ago

Wired News notes the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with Birth of the Blog, an observation that blogging got its biggest boost with that tragedy. Indeed it did.

The attacks and their impact on media were integral to my 2004 book, We the Media.

I was in Africa when the attacks occurred, and followed the news from afar. Here’s some of what I wrote in the book:

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.

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” 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.”

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.

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.” 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.”

Meg Hourihan was a continent away, in San Francisco. A cofounder of Pyra Labs, creator of Blogger, another of the early blogging tools (now owned by Google), she pointed to other blogs that day and urged people to give blood. The next day she wrote, in part: “24 hours later, I’m heading back into the kitchen to finish up the dishes, to pick up the spatula that still sits in the sink where I dropped it. I’m going to wash my coffee press and brew that cup of coffee I never had yesterday. I’m going to try and find some semblance of normalcy in this very changed world.”

Also in California that day, a little known Afghan-American writer named Tamim Ansary sent an impassioned email to some friends. His message was in part cautionary, observing that while America might want to bomb anything that moved in Afghanistan, we couldn’t bomb it back to the Stone Age, as some talk show hosts were urging. The Asian nation, he argued, was already there. Ansary’s email circulated among a widening circle of friends and acquaintances. By September 14, it had appeared on a popular weblog and on Salon, a web magazine. Within days, Ansary’s words of anguish and caution had spread all over America.

Ansary’s news had flowed upward and outward. At the outset, no one from a major network had ever heard of him. But what he said had sufficient authority that people who knew him spread his message, first to their own friends and ultimately to web journalists who spread it further. Only then did the mass media discover it and take it to a national audience. This was the best kind of grassroots collaboration with Big Media.

In Tennessee, meanwhile, Glenn Reynolds was typing, typing, typing into his weblog,, which he’d started only a few weeks earlier. A law professor with a technological bent, he’d originally expected the blog to be somewhat lighthearted. The attacks changed all that.

“I was very reactive,” he told me. “I had no agenda. I was just writing about stuff, because the alternative was sitting there and watching the plane crash into the tower again and again on CNN.”

He was as furious as anyone, and wanted retaliation. But he warned against a backlash targeting Muslims. He said Americans should not give into the temptation to toss out liberty in the name of safety. He didn’t expect to develop a following, but that happened almost immediately. He’d struck a chord. He heard from people who agreed and disagreed vehemently. He kept the discussion going, adding links and perspectives.

Today, has a massive following. Reynolds is constantly posting trenchant commentary, with a libertarian and rightward slant, on a variety of topics. He’s become a star in a firmament that could not have existed only a short time ago—a firmament that got its biggest boost from the cruelest day in recent American history. The day is frozen in time, but the explosions of airplanes into those buildings turned new heat on a media glacier, and the ice is still melting.

1 Comment on “Five Years Ago”

  1. #1 Jon Garfunkel
    on Sep 11th, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    But do you suppose there are any pitfalls of this revolution?

    Last night, I added a comment to a post of yours last week about the 9/11 film on ABC. Thanks to the clumsiness of the blog format, that post has been pushed way down the page… who read it? I noted that ABC, as it turns out, has a blog for the film. By opting out of user registration, they have resorted to moderating (pre-approving) comments, and my deferential comment hasn’t been approved.

    Hey, we could celebrate a century of automobiles. But if we knew then what we know now, would we have waited a half-century to make seatbelts standard? Not to mention even longer for the catalytic converter and fuel efficient cars and childseats. There’s no shortage of critics of automobile culture today. But the blog critics are a shrinking group. It’s too easy for for a media publisher to call something a “blog” which completely escapes your noble goals for the medium.

    I remember my rhetorical reaction to 9/11 five years ago: questions, doubts, missives, on some alumni mailing lists. Yes, it was nice to have the Internet then. But most of the learning I’ve done since has been has been in the old media: the newspapers, magazines, books. Yes, I tracked down something last month, off a link from BoingBoing to Bruce Schneier to Dave Farber’s post of the email of Perry Metzger (former NetBSD developer now chem grad student) about the viability of a liquid TATP explosive… and the three intermediaries ended up issuing followup clarifications days later. You do have to admit at times that reading blogs often requires vast more time to verify what you’ve read.