With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 already hanging heavy in our hearts, the recent earthquake on the East Coast (and the follow-up hurricane) brought back jittery reminders that individuals and nations alike are not fully in change of their own destinies. Although the earthquake ultimately emerged as an event of infinitely smaller importance than a terrorist attack, there were still echoes of that sad day in the way we rushed to understand what had happened and to weigh the consequences, if any, on our families and neighbors.
Because earthquakes strike suddenly and without warning or preparation, the 5.9 quake on August 24 is a good case study on how communicating has both changed and remained the same since Sept. 11. What has not changed very much is the primacy of television as our main communications tool. As soon as I learned about the earthquake, I went straight to TV, just as I did on Sept. 11. Like any modern media consumer, I also checked news sites across the Web to see what I could learn online. But what I found online was not only less up to date than what I was seeing on TV -- it was less compelling.
For major news events, television remains the best source of macro-information because a TV news network is essentially an aggregator of thousands of other news sources. Network TV news teams filter the latest updates and funnel them to the anchors much faster than I could ever find them on my own. (The same was true during Hurricane Irene; the Internet lagged behind the immediacy of television coverage.)
In terms of emotional impact, the near-real-time video of shaking buildings, and people fleeing from offices graphically illustrated the anxiety felt up and down the East Coast better than anything I found online. Undoubtedly I could have discovered equally arresting video online, maybe even at the networks' own news sites, but would that have been worth the effort?
Still, if the centrality of television hasn't changed in 10 years, what is new is the rise of social media. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in my midtown Manhattan office when the planes hit. My wife called to tell me the news and I immediately turned on the TV. After we hung up, and fearing an overload of telephone circuits in the city, my wife and I began a three-hour chat over AOL Instant Messenger. At the same time, a colleague traveling in Japan began IMing me from her Tokyo hotel to ask for updates; for the rest of the morning, she continued to IM me with the news she was seeing there on BBC TV. On Sept. 12, I thought Instant Messaging was going to take over the world.
My experience with the earthquake on Aug. 24 showed how wrong I was about that. Because I hadn't felt the tremors here in Connecticut, I learned about the earthquake from Facebook postings and quickly looked on Twitter for confirmation. Once I turned on the television, it never occurred to me to send anyone an IM; the online world is so much more fractured than it was 10 years ago, when AOL Instant Messenger had a critical mass of users, that I no longer even collect IM addresses. Instead of proactively reaching out to friends, I could see how they were experiencing the quake through Facebook and Twitter. I didn't need to reach out via an IM -- it was already there in social media. Further, I felt vaguely annoyed with friends who were not on Facebook or Twitter because I actually needed to call them or send emails to find out how they were. The inconvenience!
But in the end, the tweets and Facebook posts only provided an impressionistic picture of what was happening. Nothing delivered the big picture as well as old-fashioned television. Why, then, do we take TV for granted and reserve our excitement for new apps and websites? Is it because we grew up with it and it seems old hat? Sometimes I think that if the Internet had been invented first, then the introduction of TV would be seen as a miraculous technological advance. In other words, if our first mass medium had been words, images, and short video clips available from our computers, then the subsequent delivery of continuously flowing, high-quality, nationwide video from a box in the living room would be hailed as a massive improvement in our ability to communicate.
So while we supposedly live in a post-9/11 world, we actually live -- still -- in a post-JFK world. Ever since the Kennedy assassination, and despite the rise of competing media, television has been our primary source for information in a crisis. And the coming days will prove it again: we'll soon be awash in 9/11 retrospectives, but almost certainly nothing will surpass the power of the ones we see on our television screens.