Even with all the good social media has provided since its inception, had it been around on 9/11, it would have been a disaster.
I found out about the 9/11 attacks when my father called, hung up, and redialed five times before I finally woke up and answered. I was in college, and I was hungover.
"You need to keep your head about you right now," he said calmly. "People are going to be acting nuts."
"What the hell are you talking about?" I asked, holding my cellphone with my shoulder while yanking on pants.
"Turn on the TV," he said.
From there, like almost everyone I knew, I was glued to the television. My roommate’s father worked in the Pentagon, so between classes I would come back to our room with food and pore over the latest coverage with him, watching and listening for his dad’s name among the lists of survivors or, if we were unlucky, the dead. Thankfully, that day we were lucky.
One place I didn’t spend a lot of time on 9/11 was in front of my computer. Nowadays it seems preposterous to think that, during a time of wildly important breaking news, I wasn’t frantically clicking around the web. But back then the quality and speed of online news was not what it is now. We watched TV, and we didn’t stop watching TV for what felt like days.
Looking back, I wish The New York Times’ website had been better on 9/11. I wish it had been a nimbler alternative to cable news, which is poor and getting poorer. What I’m very happy didn’t exist is Twitter and Facebook.
After the Arab Spring, during which millions of freedom fighters in the Middle East galvanized and strategized via social networking sites, it’s difficult to criticize Facebook and Twitter without sounding like an out-of-touch crank. So be it. When I think of social media, I of course consider the good it’s done in recent memory, particularly in places like Syria and Egypt, where one revolutionary felt so indebted to the site that he named his kid after it. Nevertheless, if social media were as prevalent on 9/11 as it is today, I’m skeptical that the benefits would have outweighed the costs.
First, consider the lies that would have shot like an electrical charge through a nation desperate for answers. We’ve long known that Twitter is a perfect way to proliferate falsehoods both intentionally and unintentionally, and with Americans thinking the entire nation was under attack, one can only imagine what sorts of outrageous scuttlebutt would have made the rounds. In Veracruz, Mexico just last month, two men caused a melee when they falsely tweeted that an armed gang had taken children hostage at a local elementary school. Parents rushing to the school caused dozens of car accidents, and phone lines in Veracruz "totally collapsed." The men, both of whom have now been charged with terrorism, say they thought they were sending out accurate information.
We’re talking about just one incident in one state populated by fewer people than are in New York City. Multiply that by 50, with millions of people tweeting out their suspicions— and retweeting others’ suspicions—and you’ll start to understand the morass we avoided by not having Twitter or Facebook 10 years ago. All it would have taken is one conspiracy theorist in Virginia to mistake a National Guardsman for a terrorist and tweet, "Armed terrorists storming Arlington schools!" Communication channels would have imploded. Law enforcement officials would have been off on wild-goose chases. Brazen and armed citizens would have probably taken the law into their own hands, using Twitter like a police scanner to go and face down their local "terrorist threats." We know in retrospect that some Americans were quite eager to begin shooting others in the wake of 9/11. How many extra shootings did we avoid by not having Twitter on that day? Two? Three? Five?
Far less dangerous than the digital rumor mill, but almost as annoying, would have been the absurd and pointless arguments Facebook and Twitter would have facilitated. Ann Coulter would have put up a status message saying we should turn the Middle East into glass, to which Keith Olbermann would have responded by tweeting that she is a terrible person. Trolls would have crawled out of their online hovels to chastise "towelheads" and "camel jockeys." Exclamation points would have clustered together at the end of sentences like matches in a book.
When it was all said and done, when we were all done sharing our bilious aggression and dime-store punditry with our friends and followers, then would have come the saddest part: the online memorials. Unsure of what to do with the anger and melancholy that had welled up inside of us, many of us would have made our Twitter avatars and Facebook pictures cheap, simple images of "freedom," and offered up groan-worthy platitudes about democracy and the American way. Paris Hilton would have weighed in on the biggest terrorist attack in modern American history, and thousands of people would retweet her, mostly ironically. We would have thought that we were doing justice to our thousands of countrymen who had fallen. In reality it would have been simultaneously too much and not enough.
That’s the real problem with attempting to make sense of 9/11 using social media: The former requires deep thought while the latter feeds on immediacy. Ten years and millions of articles after 9/11, we’re still trying to come to terms with what happened that day. We’re still sifting through the debris and our collective emotions in order to find whatever it is we lost, or to explain why things are the way they are now. I have a hard time believing 9/11 tweets or Facebook updates would have changed any of that for the better. And by now they’d be forgotten anyway, buried under 10 years of more shouting into the abyss.