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The Empty Sky … and the Quiet Network

By Tom Watson on September 11, 20088 Comments

Seven years on, I still look up at the empty sky every so often and remember. And, of course, sometimes I remember deep in my sleep, when the mechanisms of wakefulness and work and schedules aren’t in place to defend me from the worst of the images and the sounds and the smell. I spent much of September 11th, 2001 in my office above Lexington Avenue – and the rest trying to get home to my family.

But many of those memories aren’t of the moment, of the day itself; it’s the aftermath – those lonely months when being part of the world’s great metropolis couldn’t insulate anyone from individual loss and fear. And I’m struck from my vantage point of 2008 just how unconnected those times were in comparison to how I live now – to how we live now.

The network, such as it was, failed. Cell phones connected to nothing. Land lines were iffy. Bandwidth trickled. We watched television – the same video over and over and over again. We listened to the radio. And in New York, we walked a lot. For New Yorkers, this was an in-person event, a vast communal meet-up without the benefits of organizing technology. In truth, we reduced to the lowest needs on Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs for a while. Shelter and safety, that next meal – and the same for everyone we knew, our friends and families.

The sad, horrible social network of short messages appeared on lampposts, and park benches, and impromptu bulletin boards. Names and faces of the missing like ghostly pre-Twitter queries never to be answered – Facebook by printer and Scotch tape – pieces of paper so fresh in the first days, turning to tatters of running ink and blurred head shots in the wind and the rain … and much later … the snow and sleet of the worst New York winter.

Many bloggers were born in those long hours. You could feel the biological need to self-expression, and the parallel desire for more information than the traditional media could provide. You could almost feel the old web creaking, the html bending. I am absolutely convinced that some of the energy and drive to create our socially-empowered web was provided by those horrible events on a gorgeous September morning. Then too, as the demographers tell us, a newer generation came of age – all-too conscious of the stakes and driven by the idea of change, of not going back.

But as I considered writing about the roots of online social activism, I resisted the urge to pin too much on the events of that day – choosing, instead, to talk about the response to Hurricane Katrina four years later as a post-genesis moment. Still I remember those tattered notes all over New York – the last greated unwired social cause network. And I can’t help a glance at the empty sky.

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  • Pamela says:

    What got me about all of those flyers with pictures on them — and this is true of social networks today, too — is that so many pics featured the missing people at some of the happiest moments in their lives. We saw people in their wedding pictures, graduation photos, images of them with children on their knees. Looking at these photos, we also saw the people they were leaving behind — wives, husbands, children — and saw what a great void resulted. Nice post, Tom.

  • Joe Solomon says:

    Tom – This is the most beautiful and insightful post I have read. It pays tribute to the day (I was also in New York, albeit upstate, when the planes hit) and how social media is really an extension of a drive to communicate with the rest of humankind. Thank you.

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  • Tom:
    As I wrote in this post from 2003, Who was I, September 10th, 2001, I watched the 2nd tower fall, from just 1 mile away, and it still haunts my dreams as well.
    I feel privileged that, via you, I was able to connect with the Twin Towers Fund, and eventually help to heal a lot of families via that fund and America’s Camp. I was blogging before 9/11 but it certainly did help people decide to find their voices. Technology in the right place at the correct (not right) time.
    Hearing the roll call of the names this morning was painful, but even more painful is 7 years on, the Network news was mostly fashion and gossip until the ceremony started. Only Fox News, that I saw, did a video recap of the actual news from that morning.

  • tom troja says:

    I was lucky enough to have coached Tom’s daughter in baseball…. we met under the blue skies and on the green grass where kids were kids and adults sometimes joined them…one of those kids fathers was a picture floating across the tide of that time… never felt so helpless as then.

    Great job here Tom, I never put the pic’s of that day in the Facebook framework. Nice to appreciate everyone a little more… the one good thing that came from that day.

  • greenskeptic says:


    What a thoughtful and touching piece.

    I think you are correct that the urge to communicate, to come into greater communion of community, has its roots in that shared event and its aftermath. None of us were untouched by that morning or the unfolding and enfolding collective grief we all felt. Grief about the victims, certainly, but grief over how are lives would never be the same.

    Wonderful observations.

    Thank you.

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  • Tom Watson says:

    Great comments, thanks all:

    Pamela, you’re right – all those happy photos. Everybody showing their best side. Wow.

    Tom – I’d forgotten that after these years. Holy smokes, the kids were so little! And the weather was so incredible, too.

    Howard – you more than lived up to that recommendation! What a great call on my part, if I do say so. And I know you’re involved to this day with some of the families.

    I think we all lost the (false) sense that we control our own destinies. That was shattered, and most of us never regained it.

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