Even heads of state get the significance of the Net these days. So-called "serious" journalists had been dumping every imaginable rumor - that the State Department had blown up, that crop-dusting planes were about to shower us with anthrax live on the air without any filtering or substantiation. It seemed to me that, unlike any previous big story, the Net had become the place where people were going for more accurate information -- including all kinds of content unavailable in most traditional media.
Who would ever have thought that George W. Bush would do his primary fund-raising appeal before Congress and the public by announcing a url: libertyunite.org? Or that British Prime Minister Tony Blair would publish the evidence against Osama Bin-Laden on a government Web site? Bush's advisers grasped the fund-raising potential of the Net, and Blair realized it is a new way to reach the world, including remote, even hostile corners.
The Net was not only the source of heavy traffic to conventional news sites like Cnn.com, Usatoday.com or the Washington Post/New York Times sites. Literally thousands of new sites sprouted information -- there are way too many to list here -- offering information on the tragedy itself and its survivors, working for disaster relief, presenting discussions about the Taliban and Afghanistan, Islam, Arab resentment against the United States.These news sites were a source of clarity and accuracy for many millions of people, puzzled or frightened by alarmist reports on TV and elsewhere. People posted video online from the disaster site, and broke important news online of the plane attacks, the building's collapse, and the rescue. It were these accounts that reported for the first time that planes had had hit the tower, that the towers had fallen, that there there were likely to be few survivors in the rubble. Two sites I saw were devoted to airline passengers stranded in hotel rooms all over the country seeking information on alternative forms of travel. And it was on the Net, on the Onion's terrific site that the first witty, tasteful and necessary media and political spoofs of the response to the tragedy were pulled off.
Many more sites devoted themselves to personal testimony: from people who saw the disaster, who were sending e-mail news dispatches to friends, who sought to clarify rumors or post accounts, who needed to discuss how they felt about the new "war."
Transcripts of 911 calls from the World Trade Center are posted online, as are the transcripts of reports by Islamic and Arab TV news organizations. This new kind of personal reporting offers an invaluable archive of a global tragedy. In the understandable patriotic frenzy that followed the attacks, it was on the Net that dissenters, peace activists and privacy advocates first surfaced, not the mainstream media. The Net has thus become a bulwark against the one dimensional view of events and the world that characterize Big Media. All points of view appeared, and instantly.
This kind of in-depth discussion and information was rarely available in conventional media -- on CNN and other sites, activists in Arab nations directly debated and talked with Americans, for example, something never before possible in media, which has neither the air time, space, resources, or inclination. Newspapers publish much too infrequently to compete seriously for long on a breaking story like this, with either TV or the Net. (An exception: localized cases like New York or Washington, where coverage in daily papers, particularly the New York Times and The Washington Post, was important and thorough).
Big media, already fragmenting, appears to be dividing this way:
- Commercial TV is a medium of images and entertainment. Nobody, certainly not the Net at this point, can compete with TV's ability to present powerful imagery live, from the plane attacks to speeches before Congress to Ground Zero to the aftermath to global reaction and soon, military conflict. In fact, TV arguably transmits powerful images too often and for too long, creating an emotional, almost hysterical climate around big stories even when there?s no news to report.
- Cable TV is the medium of political argument and confrontation. Channels like Fox, CNN and MSNBC are institutional media, the place where politicians and lobbyists gather to press their viewpoints, talk indirectly with other leaders elsewhere, share insider information and float options and ideas. These media are striking in their overwhelming tilt towards officials, bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicians and academics. You can watch them for days and not hear from average people, beyond the silly handful of calls or e-mails they occasionally cite.
- The Net offers not only breaking news -- mainstream media companies all have sophisticated websites -- but is the medium of individual expression and additional, more in depth information. Instant message systems played a crucial role in transmitting information, both accurate and false, especially in and near the disaster sites. IM will almost surely become a dominant and significant information source in the future, especially as it moves beyond college campuses and networked companies.
But for all the mainstream media phobias about the dangerous or irresponsible Net, it's seemed increasingly clear in the weeks since the attacks that the Net has become our most serious medium, the only one that offers information consumers breaking news and discussions, alternative points of view. Sadly, the Net seems to be the favored medium of the terrorists who planned the attacks as well. (Countless sites sprung up to detail what Islam is really about, and how diverse opinions in the Arab world are at play in this disaster).
It's the medium of personal expression -- people e-mailed friends and relatives to tell them they were okay, to get relief information, to volunteer time and money. And, of course, unlike conventional media, which still give ordinary citizens little or no opportunity to participate, the Net is architecturally and viscerally interactive. Feedback and individual opinion are not ghettoized in op-ed pages or in a handful of "we-want-to-hear-from-you" (no, they don't) phone calls, but are an integral part of Net information dispersal, it's core.
The Net has had its ups and downs in recent months. It's still beset by intrusive regulators, eager law enforcement officials and greedy dot.com entrepreneurs and corporate interests who want its profits but not its values. It's still going through a shaky phase economically. But the WTC attacks remind us of the extraordinary openness, open distribution of information and sense of community-building that are the heart of the wired world's promise.