Bound Together by an Historic Moment

I was a young faculty member teaching a two-hour freshman comp lab in Wisconsin the morning of September 11, 2001. On my way back to the office, I happened to pass the English faculty lounge, and saw people watching the TV news coverage of the Twin Towers. When I heard about the plane that hit the Pentagon, I called home to check on my sister. She was living in the DC area, working on a contract that put her at a desk in the Pentagon one day a week. (She hadn’t gone on the 11th.) My wife had a brother in the Navy who was reassigned to replace someone who had been killed in the attacks.

In an era before social media giants like Twitter and Facebook funneled people towards news stories, information on the Internet mostly spread through individual blogs. Yes there were some blogs run by groups, but if I recall correctly in 2001 the websites of major newspapers like The Washington Post would wait until they had sent the next day’s paper to the press, and then they would change the website overnight. Online news was an afterthought.

Even after the Twin Towers collapsed, Google searches for “World Trade Center NYC” were still returning top-level hits for the web page where you could book reservations at the Windows on the World restaurant. Clicking on the link resulted in an error, because the servers that hosted those pages were destroyed in the collapse.

If I recall correctly, Google searches did include some links to news stories, but they were days or weeks old. At this time, Google simply wasn’t set up to scan news websites and use breaking news stories to adjust its ranking algorithm — in part because few news organizations made an effort to publish a steady stream of stories whenever they were finished.

This was an era where a city might have two major newspapers that would carve out a space for themselves by being a “morning paper” (which was delivered to people’s houses so people could read overnight news while they ate breakfast) and an “evening paper” (which commuters might pick up downtown, to read about what happened in the city during the workday). The reporters and editors and graphic designers and printers and distributors all worked shifts that focused around delivering a high quality product once a day, rather than the cycle that seems normal today — a steady stream of news, 24/7.

The 1963 assassination of President Kennedy caused journalists to invent, on the fly, what we know of as modern TV news, with long-distance linkups that permit with links that let anchors in the studio talk live on the air with remote reporters in the field. (There was no live TV coverage of what everyone expected would just be a short routine drive; CBS was the first TV station to report shots fired at the president, but the cameras they used for the daily TV news broadcasts hadn’t been turned on yet, and needed several minutes to warm up, so the first report was just a voice speaking over a static slide. See “How JFK’s Assassination Changed TV Forever.”)

So many people went online looking for news that the homepages of many news sources were overwhelmed and went offline

At some point during the day, Google added a custom message for people looking for current news: “If you are looking for news, you will find the most current information on TV or radio” (FirstMonday).

Because there was literally nothing else I could do that day, I made a website (hand-coded in very basic HTML): “World Trade Center: Reflections on the Disaster.

Skyscrapers in general, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in particular, symbolize, for many writers, either prideful arrogance, or a new technological beauty. This site attempts to survey what has already been written on this topic.

What are you feeling/thinking right now? E-mail me.

At that time, I was coding my blog by hand in HTML, manually adding new entries at the top of the page and every week or so moving entries from the bottom into an archive. I didn’t have a comment system, so I just invited readers to email me. (I got emails from all over the world.)

That semester I was teaching an advanced technical writing course that used Diane Vaughn’s book, The Challenger Launch Decision, which analyzed the shuttle disaster that happened during my senior year of high school. I wanted my writing students to appreciate the importance of documentation, especially when documentation is created or shared or interpreted under stressful circumstances when humans are not operating at their best.

On the class that was scheduled to meet September 12, I had assigned the introduction of that book.

Here’s an email which I printed out because I wanted to save it. (I’ve stayed in touch with this student; reproduced with her permission.)