This item has been corrected.
When I think about New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, I think about those “missing” persons posters taped by desperate relatives to streetlights and storefronts and scaffolding. I think about the candlelight vigils that filled Union Square night after night, and about the proliferation of American flags: Every corner bodega seemed to have one and every taxicab, too. I recall how scary it was to get on the subway (for fear of a bomb), and how scary it was to open the mail (for fear of anthrax).
It was all so raw, so terrifying—and it was all so analog.
After all, this was three years before Facebook, four years before YouTube, five years before Twitter, six years before the iPhone, and nine years before Instagram. So there were no anguished tweets or status updates from those trapped on the upper floors of the Twin Towers. There were no color-filtered smartphone pictures of the burning buildings, uploaded in real time onto Instagram. There was no destined-to-go viral YouTube video from al-Qaeda, claiming credit for the atrocities.
In 2001, there was already a robust internet. Yet, most Americans were getting their news that day from television—with the networks deciding which images to show and which to withhold. As hard as it was to watch the impact, the billowing black smoke and the collapse over and over again, we were relatively shielded. And for most of us there was no imperative to comment publicly on what had happened.
How we experienced the events as they took place would look different through the prism of social sharing, and so too would the displays of collective mourning. Victims’ profile pages would be transformed into robust online memorials. Their Instagram photos and final tweets would be used in news stories and obituaries. Hashtags like #StayStrongNYC and #WTCNeverForget would trend across platforms. We would start GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for victims’ families. We would all be inclined to provide a running commentary for all of our friends and co-workers and former classmates and ex-boyfriends to “like.”
Because in an era when we share so much of ourselves online, that inevitably includes our grief. Facebook is an expedient way to tell our extended networks about a death in the family, and years later to remind them about a painful anniversary. Twitter is a way to engage with perfect strangers over shared hashtags, as we saw in the wake of recent celebrity deaths, like those of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. (At its worst, the conversation on Twitter can veer into hateful territory; Williams’ daughter received hurtful comments and graphic Photoshopped images of her late father, which forced her temporarily off Twitter.)
There’s also a growing genre of powerful grief blogs, and of course there’s Modern Loss, the online magazine that Rebecca Soffer and I founded last year to help open up the conversation about life after loss.
Allison Gilbert, an editor of the book Covering Catastrophe, about the journalists who covered 9/11, has pondered whether today’s technology would have diluted “that feeling of having support from a real-life community.”
“Would people have flown a flag on their window or the antenna of their car, if they could have flown a virtual flag on Facebook?” said Gilbert, who reported on the World Trade Center attacks for WNBC-TV and was hospitalized after being struck by flying debris from the fallen towers.
Today’s state of social sharing, coupled with the burgeoning culture of online mourning, would have changed a lot about how we took in the events as they unfolded, how we parsed them, and also how we grieved. Some of the of the tactile imagery that has stuck with me all these years (the missing posters, the flags) might have instead been supplanted by digital pleas and expressions of patriotism. I make no value judgment there. Social media posts, often remarkably facile, can also be the impetus for meaningful action. And digital communities can go a long way to to reducing the sense of isolation that many grief-stricken people feel.
What the technology and media environment of 2014 doesn’t change is the need for deep, offline connection, too. Those post-9/11 vigils might have been organized on Facebook, if it had been around back then. But I think people still would have eventually made their way down to Union Square to light a candle and share their “where I was when” story with others. For years after the attacks, people came in droves to Ground Zero, when that sacred ground looked like little more than a hole in the ground. Today, there is a memorial and a museum, to which visitors flock.
And even as #RIPRobinWilliams was making the rounds on Twitter and Instagram, fans of the late actor brought flowers, candles and cards to the Boulder, Colo. home where the opening sequence of Mork and Mindy was filmed, noted Brad Weismann, who lives nearby and runs The Obit Patrol blog.
“The ability to digitally mourn hasn’t kept us from wanting a physical place to mourn,” said Weismann, who aggregates obituaries and news related to death and dying. “We still need that comfort.”
Today, there will be many 9/11-related tweets and Facebook posts. But for much of New York, sanctuary lies in the passing taxi, the concrete sidewalks, the pulse of bodies in motion.
You can follow Gabrielle on Twitter at @gabibirkner. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Gillbert reported on WNYC-TV.