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London 2005: The Changing Face of Global Communication

Yesterday's tragic events in London left me numb. Throughout the day, I watched people posting their thoughts about the bombings, their good wishes and sympathies to Londoners, their support and their stories, and I couldn't think of anything to add. I hope it would be obvious to people that I too feel terrible about the bombings and extend my sympathies to all the victims. But I couldn't think of anything significant or important that I could say about the event, because everyone else was already doing it.

However, watching the way people checked in with each other got me thinking...



Before the era of the Internet, all news, even news of this sort, travelled more slowly. If a major disaster took place before the invention of telegraph communication, news of it could only spread as fast as people could walk or ride. With the development of radio and television, the information reached us a lot more quickly, usually through some form of trusted mass media. For example, people older than I am remember Walter Cronkite reporting on the death of President Kennedy; many people of my generation recall live TV network news coverage in the aftermath of President Reagan's shooting and the explosion of the Challenger.

But the Internet has changed the way we get this news. When gnomi first used the Internet to order a pair of sandals from Israel, I remember noting how the global economy has gone from wholesale to retail. Well, global information has done the same thing.

Back in September 2001, most people still weren't blogging or used to the idea of blogging. I had a webpage, as did many other people, but it wasn't a place where I considered leaving daily posts about my life or topics that interested me. Instead, we tended to use newsgroups, such as those on Usenet, or mailing lists with personal friends, to share details of our lives.

One of my mailing lists (which I am still on today), primarily consists of people living in the New York City area. On September 11, 2001, that mailing list "exploded" with messages. I still have all of those messages kept in one folder, which I labeled "Sept2001Disaster." My very first inkling of the event was an email from a woman named Susan whom I've never met. Her email had the Subject line "Plane crashes in World Trade Center" and the text of it was just three lines, noting that she saw this on the news and asking if everyone was okay. At the time, I thought it was merely a prop plane that had gone off course; little did I know...

The list filled up over the next few days because everyone was checking in. I remember how one friend wasn't checking his email, and none of us heard from him, and we desperately hoped he was okay. (He was, and a phone call to his parents let him know that we were all concerned.) But at the time, no one had thought of using the web as a tool for checking in.

Until science fiction writer William Shunn (who maintains a LiveJournal at shunn) set up his "I'm Okay" Registry, which gave people a place to check in, to leave a message telling their friends that they were safe and sound. As far as we can tell, this was the first webpage of that sort ever set up. If you click on the link, you can find the story of how and why Shunn set up the list, the archive of names of people who checked in, expressions of sympathy, and many other things. It's a fascinating historical document, and I'd encourage anyone who can deal with their emotions from that tragic day to explore the site.

And now we come to yesterday.

When I logged in yesterday morning, my first hint that something had happened in London were two early posts on my "Friends" list. One is locked, so I won't link to it, but I will note it came from a friend in New York City; the other, from scarlettina, is here. It's very short, just a quick note asking Londoners to post and let us know that they're safe -- but again, it was my first inkling of a major news event that had happened.

(To be honest, and possibly a little bit alarmist, my first thought was that a "pony nuke" had gone off in downtown London. I was relieved to find out I was wrong.)

Very quickly, my mailing lists had reports of the news and requests for survivors to check in -- just like my mailing lists did back in 2001. But this time, the vast majority of checking in took place not as private emails back and forth, but on the web.

I imagine everyone by now has heard of london_070705, the "London Incidents 7 July 2005" community, set up here on LiveJournal to allow people to check in and exchange information. But what astonished me as I checked my email throughout yesterday was how quickly that community became the place to go for checking in. Friends of mine on mailing lists who have no idea how LiveJournal works, who were confused by all the bizarre account usernames, were trading the URL http://www.livejournal.com/community/london_070705/ back and forth as the place to check.



As we scan the lists of names, looking for those of family, friends, and acquaintances, we can't help but register all those strangers too, people we never knew before and might never know again. But this time, we don't know them simply as the mass of humanity who was also affected; for a brief moment, each of those strangers becomes a real human being in our eyes, someone just like us, who has family and friends who care about them too.

We have truly become a global community.

Comments

Yep.

My one close Londoner friend who isn't on LJ I nearly had a heart attack waiting to hear from. Like treehavn, she's a central Londoner, and as the hours went by - well, we've all had those moments. She's fine, but it was strange to see the auto-response of people on LJ who "of course" knew that it was the place to check in to, to let people know that they were ok, and on the other hand to have to wait 12 hours to get a response from my non-LJ friend who was quite surprised I'd heard so quickly.
Absolutely correct. That and the use of Flickr for phone pix of the event and Wikipedia/Wikinews really stepping up to the bat as a central information source.

OTOH, the online radio sources took a bath on this one. Couldn't get through to much of anything BBC for quite a while. Finally was noted a news station in London that was quite good, and I have it linked on my homepage for use later.

actually chicago NPR was streaming the BBC news of the event for most of yesterday instead of their own programming. I listened most of the day online to the BBC news feed.
WBUR was running BBC World Service too, over their wireless analog distribution network at least.

Semi-random rebuttal

Well, the "We" that has access to the net and uses it in this fashion has. While the flow of news has changed via things like LJ and wikipedia, the demographic of users and posters is still somewhat self-selecting.

Re: Semi-random rebuttal

True; there are still a lot of people without access to the Internet, for many reasons. But for a substantial number of us, the paradigm of how we get our information has been changing over the past few years, and I think we keep experiencing new tipping points.
The London LJ community was started by 2 people I know (one who is on sick leave from London Underground) because of UK friends lists filling up with queries about their friends who live/work in central London.


Another friend works at the ambulance dispatch and took the first call from Aldgate Tube. She posted it to her LJ when told to contact people at that time because they would get very busy very quickly and wouldn't have the time to allow staff to do so later.


I used to live in London and worked 2 blocks from Tavistock Square.


{You don't know me-I am a friend of batwrangler's.}

The London LJ community was started by 2 people I know (one who is on sick leave from London Underground) because of UK friends lists filling up with queries about their friends who live/work in central London.

That's exactly what I was seeing at the start; people were posting in their journals, asking people to check in, but there was no centralized location to do so. Creating a LiveJournal specifically for that purpose made a lot of sense. But what astonished me was how that one LJ community became the standard place for everyone, even if you had never heard of or never used LiveJournal before.
Thanks for posting this, Michael. I'm on vacation in France, and I was deep in Normandy on the day of the bombings. All I know, still, really, is bits from a couple of International Herald articles and a little from LJ. It's strange that in the Information Age, even here in Paris as I am now, I know so little and feel so disconnected from everything. The London bombings may never feel "real" to me like other disasters have, which disturbs me.
Hm. I take it you were away from our modern forms of communication while in Normandy?

One of the other things I found fascinating about both check-in lists (yours and the new one) was how grassroots they both were. This wasn't a government agency asking people to check in; it was individuals setting up the check-in sites.

The London bombings might also feel more unreal to you because on 9/11 you were in NYC at the time.
Hm. I take it you were away from our modern forms of communication while in Normandy?...

The London bombings might also feel more unreal to you because on 9/11 you were in NYC at the time.


I did very little emailing for those 17 days, watching very little television, and read almost no newspapers. The sense of unreality came from not hearing anything about the bombings until it was already old news, and from still having not seen any images on television. The Madrid bombing, the Tokyo nerve gas attack, the tsunami, the Challenger explosion, all those watershed moments still seem nearly as real to me as 9/11, I think, because I saw images of all of them as the news was breaking. I feel as if I experienced the London news more like a 19th century human than a 21st century human would have.
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