As the tragic events of last week unfolded, Americans turned to the World Wide Web to reach friends, family and colleagues; search out more in-depth news; share gossip and theories not offered by the major news networks; and launch online efforts to help those affected by the tragedy.
The Web gained strength as a communications device after most people initially turned on the television to see the dramatic footage. Even wired workers who spend most of their day tuned in to the Internet said their natural instinct was to turn on the TV.
In a world that requires instant delivery of news, the best infrastructure for the speediest delivery of video content is through the TV box, said Steven Vonder Haar, director of the media and entertainment strategies practice of consulting firm The Yankee Group.
Its not as if Web users had much choice – at least at first. Although the dramatic live images of the destruction of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon kept viewers riveted to their TV screens, those looking to the Internet for more news were met with error pages.
The major online news sites, overwhelmed by traffic, were mostly inaccessible in the hours after the attack. Keynote Systems, an online monitoring service, reported that ABCNews.com, CNN.com and NYTimes.com were completely unavailable the hour after two commercial airliners crashed into the New York towers, and were only offering intermittent access to users who tried to log on to the sites several hours after the events.
The terrorist disaster prompted the biggest overload on news sites ever measured on the Internet, other than denial-of-service attacks by hackers last year, Keynote said.
To deal with the server demands, many news sites streamlined their home pages, cutting out graphics and relying on simple text links to guide users to stories. CNN.com cut its home page from 255 kilobytes to about 20 KB, Keynote said.
The problems associated with delivering high-impact news on the Web are why TV draws the initial eyeballs, Vonder Haar said. While TV throws enormous resources into around-the-clock coverage, online news sites fear being overwhelmed by traffic and thus streamline their coverage, offering the most basic text links and limited graphics. The fear of overload precludes the ability to offer data-intensive applications such as streaming video. As a result, major news sites are not able to match TVs offerings, he said. The Internet is a medium for the masses, but it is not mass media in the same way as TV.
What the Web proved itself to be instead was a valuable communications channel. As telephone systems became overwhelmed by voice traffic, online users turned to e-mail and instant messaging (IM) services to check in with colleagues and friends. Most of the major providers, including AOL and The Microsoft Network, suffered few service interruptions.
Sun Microsystems, which leased the 25th and 26th floors of the World Trade Centers South tower, has been using telephones, e-mail and IM to locate its staff. “All 346 Sun employees who used the 25th and 26th floors of the South tower have been accounted for and are safe,” said David Harrah, spokesman of Suns Solaris software group.
With the major news sites down, online users turned to foreign news sources such as BBC.com to get alternative perspectives – and to take a break from images of the buildings falling down over and over again and watching TV reporters harassing rescue workers, said Anita Malnig, executive vice president of Right Brain Marketing, a San Francisco online marketing firm.
Search engine sites Google and LookSmart said there were so many people glued to their TV sets that it was an average day in terms of the number of hits. But the types of queries seen were clearly focused on the World Trade Center events, with searches for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, the World Trade Center directory and Manhattan maps among the most requested, according to Kathryn Shantz, LookSmarts director of communications.
Early Tuesday morning, the number of searches for CNN on Google were 6,000 per minute, with CNN the top search topic as the news broke. No. 2 was World Trade Center; No. 3 was BBC; No. 4 was Pentagon; and No. 5 was MSNBC. Osama bin Laden was No. 6, according to Google.
Meanwhile, those searching WorldTradeCenter.com were greeted Sept. 11 with a dim sentence: “Domain to be donated as a memorial or for some other suitable purpose.” By Sept. 12, the site read: “World Trade Center – Memorial” with a link to the Red Cross Web site and donation form.
Relief agencies used the Web and e-mail to get their messages out, with the Red Cross (www.redcross.org) calling for blood donations. Within 48 hours of the attacks, blood banks reported they were full and had started freezing blood.
Within 24 hours of the attacks, AOL, CNN.com, NYTimes.com, WhiteHouse.gov and Yahoo! offered emergency contact information, with links and phone numbers for airlines, the Department of Justice, the Pentagon, World Trade Center businesses, and emergency and relief agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov).
U.S. Attorney General John Aschcroft announced that the FBI had set up a tip site at www.ifccfbi.gov to solicit any information related to the attacks. After initially being overwhelmed by traffic, the site was back and running a few hours later.
Numerous survivor and missing person sites, including www.ny.com/wtcform.html and http://okay.prodigy.net, were also set up within hours of the attacks, asking New York City residents to list their names if they are alive, and post the names of those missing.
And one Boston public relations agency, in an effort to offer assistance, sent out an e-mail offering its couches and e-mail and phone service to those stranded at the airports.