On 9/11: Bits, bells and bagpipes

9-11-colorsThis week a New York museum dedicated to commemorating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, launched a web site and asked for submissions of amateur photos and videos shot that day. The museum, scheduled to open in three years, has already collected thousands.

The day is said by some to be the most heavily documented ever by amateurs – and whether it was or not is beside the point. It was in any case symbolic of the transition from a world of The Media to a world of ubiquitous, omnipresent We Media – the world as we know it now. Production and distribution of stories, knowledge and information is in anyone’s hands.

That doesn’t negate how most of us learned and watched the events that day, on television. For me, 9/11 was a day with CNN, and anchor Aaron Brown reporting from Brooklyn while the towers burned, then collapsed, behind him. In a way, we were all eye witnesses.

At the very first We Media conference, in 2005, held at the headquarters of The Associated Press in New York, AP CEO Tom Curley reminded us that many iconic news images over the years have been captured not by professionals assigned to the task but by amateur eye witnesses who just happened to be there, with a camera. We now expect this and there’s less surprise when it happens – this year we saw the amateur video of a young woman’s death during election protests in Tehran.

For me, the triumph of We Media is not its scale, which you might measure equally well by the ubiquity of cameras and mobile phones as by access to mobile or broadband networks. All of this has grown exponentially since the Twin Towers fell in New York.

Nor is it the wonder of businesses that have tried to turn the story-telling impulse into an enterprise. We had no YouTube when American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Center. Google, Inc., was just three years old.

No, for me the power of us is revealed in delicate details, in stories that come from anyone. They come from professionals, some of whom are masters; and they come from us. Some of us are masters too.

The sheer volume of story-telling is remarkable in its own right. But the numbers don’t move me. There is too much information today. Whether it’s signal or noise doesn’t really matter. It’s overwhelming now, more so tomorrow.

Yet singular stories still move me, still rip my heart out, no matter where they come from, no matter who tells them. We Media reminds me that I may be dazed and confused, but I’m still human.

Here are two stories I came across today that stopped me in my tracks – the first, literally, as I arrived at work this morning. A voice on my car radio forced me to pause before I shut it off. National Public Radio markets these as driveway moments.

The second came a few minutes later, at my desk, on my laptop’s screen, when serendipity, caffeine, curiosity, distraction or I don’t know what inspired me to read an email that on most mornings I would have skipped. Maybe the email’s subject, glanced at precisely the right moment, got me on this particular morning, Sept. 11, 2009: “When World Trade Towered.”

I think it was spam, actually. I don’t recall signing up for Madison Avenue Journal, an email that started appearing in my in-box a few months ago. I know I read it at least once – I found it spunky, entertaining and warm – strange, since it’s about advertising, or not strange at all if I’m as good a sucker as any for a good yarn. Or yes, strange in either case because, think about it, how often does any email or RSS feed, or newspaper or magazine or Twit or status update or anything inspire any emotion, or show any real spark of life, or joy?

I had to read down to hit the jackpot, the bits that glued me to my seat: a vignette from a meeting at an ad agency office, near New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a month after the towers fell.

Now I’m hearing church bells and bagpipes.

Here they are for you. Listen, read, reflect:

You may also like