What would 9/11 and its aftermath look like with the social tools we have today?

Tribute in Light, from Empire State Building

Tribute in Light as seen from Empire State Building – 9/11/2003

Today is the 15th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11.

Shortly after the attacks, I was walking around an exhibit in SoHo called Here Is New York. People had been invited to submit their pictures. These were hung in a gallery. The atmosphere was somber. Union Square was plastered with posters asking if someone had been seen.

In those 15 years, a lot has changed. YouTube didn’t exist back then. (Founded in 2005.) flickr didn’t exist. (Launched 2004.) Facebook didn’t exist (2004). Mobile was in its infancy. (The iPhone didn’t come out until 2007.) Of course, more recent innovations like Snapchat, Instagram, Meerkat, Vine and Periscope didn’t exist. Then-dominant players like Yahoo! and Aol have largely fallen by the wayside. Flickr has become a has-been.

I thought it would be an interesting thought exercise to look at what the world would look like if 9/11 had instead occurred today.

  • Instead of posting flyers, people would use Facebook’s “I’m OK” feature to find news of their loved ones. The service, activated after disasters, prompts people to press a button saying that they’re OK.
  • We’d have live accounts from the disaster scene on Twitter. The whole world would be expressing their sympathies in 140 characters.
  • With smart phone cameras and cheap video cameras like Dropcam, investigators (working with the likes of Google) would be able to create 3D models of the events.
  • We’d see a flood of pictures on Instagram.
  • CNN and other news networks would offer live streams to everyone.
  • People would watch replays of the events on YouTube.

One thing that likely wouldn’t happen: Periscopes and Facebook live. The apps wouldn’t work in the saturated environment. The excessive demand during 9/11 meant that cell networks and landlines in the area were overloaded. There’s no way that current data networks could handle all that traffic. Even pictures would have to be uploaded over broadband connections.

The biggest change — and the one with the most effect — is the advent of in-flight WiFi. Using the communication networks we have today, passengers would be better informed of the events. They could follow the news. With the additional information, they could thwart the hijackers like heroic passengers on Flight 93 did.

In flight WiFi would also allow passengers to leave messages for their loved ones.

In short, 9/11 would be completely different on 9/11/2016.

(This post was posted on a flight from San Francisco to Seattle.)

(This post was updated on 9/11/2016 to reflect the 15th anniversary and to add Facebook Live, which didn’t exist back then.)

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