Pagers, Pay Phones, and Dialup: How We Communicated on 9/11


Thinking about the communications on 9/11 made me realize just how different our experience of the attacks would be today—and how much more we would know, for better or worse, given our increased interconnectedness and instinct to turn to technology first when disaster strikes.

On 9/11, there were just three videographers, all coincidentally foreigners—a French filmmaker, a German artist, and a Czech tourist—who captured the impact of the first plane in New York City. Only two security cameras at the Pentagon are known to have captured the impact of the plane there. In Pennsylvania, there is literally only a video of the mushroom cloud rising from the field in the moments after Flight 93 crashed. It’s safe to say that today there would be scores, hundreds or even thousands, of photos and videos of low-flying planes hitting the towers and the Pentagon or diving over the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.

Today, there would be Facebook Live video, tweets, and Instagram posts from the streets below, from people caught in the impact zones, and most likely from victims trapped above the crash zones in the World Trade Centers—perhaps even from aboard the hijacked planes themselves. We would know intimately the sights and sounds that those trapped amid the day’s horrors experienced in their final moments and would be bombarded by the tragic images of people jumping or falling from the World Trade Center.

We would see what it was like to have been inside the burning Pentagon as an inferno spread. There would have been live images and videos nearly instantly from the field outside Shanksville where Flight 93 crashed, those first near the scene—which, in 2001 in Shanksville, were workers from a nearby scrapyard and two coal truck drivers who saw the plane crash as they drove down an adjacent road—would have had in their pockets more advanced tools today than the news reporters and photographers who rushed to the scene hours later had back then. (After all, it’s not uncommon now to have video from inside mass shootings or aviation accidents.)

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If today’s communications technology had existed in 2001, it’s even possible that, just as the mass shooter in New Zealand broadcast his massacre on Facebook, the 9/11 hijackers themselves might have broadcast their own attack—their goal, of course, to spread maximum terror, fear, and trauma.

And in the event of a 9/11-style occurrence today, we would almost surely be less united as a nation around our televisions than around our computers and our phones; searching through Facebook for messages from friends and family. Mark Zuckerberg’s website, which was still two and a half years in the future on 9/11, would today almost certainly activate its “Safety Check” button for all of New York and Washington, DC, maybe even for the entire country, telling users to “Mark Yourself Safe.”

We would scour LinkedIn to determine if we knew anyone who worked at the companies in the impact zone, and we’d scroll through Twitter as a million rumors and hot takes bloomed—who did it, what the nation’s reaction should be, whose fault it all was. There would be Vox.com explainers about al-Qaeda and Heavy.com Fast Facts You Need to Know.

On Citizen, civilians would post their photos and videos of the attack, and Next Door would be flooded with reports of the missing. We would Google “Taliban” and end up reading Wikipedia to explain our new enemies to us, as Google Earth sleuths pointed out al-Qaeda’s training camps outside Kandahar.

The flood of information, of reports true, false, and somewhere in between, would overwhelm us. Even in 2001, the day was filled with chaos—reports of a car bomb at the State Department and of additional plane crashes and attacks in places like Cleveland, among other rumors—so it seems almost impossible to imagine how many unsubstantiated claims would spread online, some presumably helped along by online bots and trolls, others spread in fever swamps like 8Chan.

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