Moments like the ones we endured this morning, watching the tragedy of the London transit bombings, remind me over and over of the power of the internet. These moments of crisis act as a kind of case in point in the argument between the mainstream media and the forms of media developing online. I remember in the days following September 11th, 2001 that articles were appearing announcing that the internet failed us in the crisis; major news sites were bombarded and being dragged down into uselessly slow loading; while the internet was supposed to be rapid-fire, it wasn’t providing the news fast enough for its hungry audience. Live television, with it’s ability to quickly interrupt itself with the latest news, was faster at getting the news out. There was an air of “I told you so” about the articles, a sort of finger-waggling, reminding us that we still need the wire stories and our tvs. I read these articles and shook my head in disbelief. These people accusing the internet of failure were not looking for information in the right places. The internet did not fail us on 9/11, and it didn’t fail us this time, either.
The mainstream media cannot do what the internet does; it can’t connect us to each other. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was getting my reports from a friend of mine living in Manhattan, feverishly taking pictures from her rooftop and sending them to me, and waiting for her daughter appear on the street below, her shoes covered in ash. I called her friends in Toronto for her to let them know that she was okay, because the phone lines were down, but her broadband internet connection was still working. She could talk to me, and a whole slew of us who had gathered together in a multi-user synchronous space, but not anyone who was offline. While the anchors on my tv were scanning the latest news release, I was hearing the same information from my earphones, as live streaming radio from the US and from the people in the same virtual room as me, living the events as they occured. I was following this thread (warning: slow loading, as it is a huge, fascinating page) on metafilter, which is a moment by moment group blog detailing each excruciating detail, partly by people at the site itself, in and around New York City, and partly by those around the world watching and listening to the news. Mainstream media can show me the official video and hand me the official stories, but they can’t be hundreds of people on the scene, reporting directly back to me. They can’t be my friends, and I don’t feel for the mainstream media what I felt about the people there that I knew and loved.
Today was a bit different, but not that much; I started my day by hearing the story on the radio and being completely without an internet connection. I felt helpless, my hands tied. I didn’t know what was going on, I was blind and deaf because I didn’t have my contacts at my fingertips. I got into work early and checked on my friends. Someone created a group blogdedicated to check-ins from Londoners; people were desperately logging on, trying to find out if their friends were okay. The phone lines might have been down, but if you were online and had a blog, you could contact your friends and family and fill them in on what’s going on. The comments to these blog posts are filled with comfort, concern, and offers of help.
I talked to a couple of Londoners over YM and AIM; they told me about their empty offices, the long walk home, the eerie calm. We listened to radio streams together, and a friend of mine corrected some misinformation in the cbc radio broadcast. (“It’s not a tourist bus, it’s just a regular one.”) As was the case four years ago, a metafilter thread stands as a historical record of information as it appeared.
When it comes to big events, big tragedies, the internet has not failed us. Expecting the internet to act as if it’s just another version of the mainstream media is setting it up for failure. When it comes to connecting us to each other in ways we were never able to connect before, the internet has provided us with a whole new view of world events. By connecting us with each other, the internet brings the news so close to our hearts it hurts.