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Blogging post 9/11: When the world took note

Construction continues at the World Trade Center site with memorial footprints of the Twin Towers visible Sept. 7, 2010, in New York City.


"Blogs are everywhere," writes author Scott Rosenberg on the website promoting his book, Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters . "Immediate, intimate, and influential, they have put the power of personal publishing into everyone's hands. Regularly dismissed as trivial and ephemeral, they have proved that they are here to stay."

Here is an excerpt from the book, which chronicles the rise of blogging and its effects on politics, business, media and our personal lives.

In September, 2001, conventional wisdom held that Web content was "dead." Vast fortunes had been poured onto the Web during the late-1990s dotcom bubble; a lucky few had made a killing, but once the stock-market game of musical chairs ended, most media companies took heavy losses. In perhaps the single worst-timed deal in history, Time Warner had traded more than half its value for America Online at the very moment that the online stock balloon was pumped up with helium and about to pop.

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Now the media barons were nursing their wounds, cursing the Internet, and concluding that it had all been a bad dream. While the Web wasn't going to go away, they decided that it wasn't going to change everything, either. The path was clear for them to return to a familiar world of mass publishing and broadcasting, "eyeball collection" and advertising sales. At the same time, the collapse of the Internet bubble had dragged lots of new ventures and ideas down with it. [Evan]Williams's company, Blogger, had seen steady growth in users, and yet, earlier that year, had been forced to lay off all its employees and persevere as a one-person operation. The small Web publishers that hadn't fallen off a cliff were hanging on by their fingernails. That was how we found ourselves at, the magazine site I'd helped start in 1995. Enthralled as I remained by the new medium, I couldn't help thinking, Maybe it wasn't so smart to give up that newspaper job after all.

As a business, publishing stuff on the Web had fallen on very hard times. Yet that wasn't stopping people from publishing more stuff on the Web. The profit motive, apparently, wasn't the only force at work here. And when the planes hit the towers, money was the last thing on most people's minds. They first wanted to know what had happened to the people they knew and loved; later they wanted to understand what had happened and why.

According to the most thorough study of media consumption on and after 9/11, use of the Internet actually dropped for a while after the initial news spread. The crisis didn't introduce the Internet to a vast new population or represent a "breakthrough moment" in which large numbers of people abandoned other media for online sources of information, the report concluded. Yet those who did turn to the Web sensed a breakthrough nonetheless: At that moment of crisis, many of us looked to the Web for a sense of connection and a dose of truth. The surrogate lamentations of the broadcast media's talking heads sounded manufactured and inadequate; people felt the urgent necessity to express themselves and be heard as singular individuals. Those who posted felt the gravity of the moment and the certainty that stepping forward to record their thoughts had unquantifiable but unmistakable value.

"Only through the human stories of escape or loss have I really felt the disaster," wrote Nick Denton, a journalist turned Internet entrepreneur, in the Guardian on Sept. 20, 2001. "And some of the best eyewitness accounts and personal diaries of the aftermath have been published on weblogs. These stories, some laced with anecdotes of drunken binges and random flings, have a rude honesty that does not make its way through the mainstream media's good-taste filter."

David Weinberger, an author and Web consultant, wrote in his e-mail newsletter: "When the Maine was sunk a hundred years ago, messages scatted over telegraph wires to feed the next edition of the newspaper. When the Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor, the radio announced the wreckage. When Kennedy was shot, television newscasters wept and we learned to sit on our couches while waiting for more bad news. Now, for the first time, the nation and the world could talk with itself, doing what humans do when the innocent suffer: cry, comfort, inform, and, most important, tell the story together."

In his Guardian article, Denton wrote, "In weblogs, the Web has become a mature medium." A column headline on CNET similarly declared that blogging had "come of age." Such statements may be hard to believe today, years later, when blogs — frequently updated websites typically filled with links, news, or personal stories — are still widely reviled as a medium for immature ranting. In fact, within a year of writing those words, Denton himself went on to found Gawker Media, a network of rant-heavy gossip blogs powered by adolescent attitude.

In retrospect, 9/11 hardly marked any sort of maturity for blogging. Instead, it marked the moment that the rest of the media woke up and noticed what the Web had birthed. Something strange and novel had landed on the doorstep: the latest monster baby from the Net. Newspapers and radio and cable news began to take note and tell people about it. That in turn sent more visitors to the bloggers' sites, and inspired a whole new wave of bloggers to begin posting.

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Many of these newcomers faced the post-9/11 world with militant anger and proudly dubbed themselves "warbloggers." As they learned how to post and link, they felt they were exploring virgin territory, and it was, for them, as it has been for each successive new generation of blogging novices. But blogging had already been around for years. In a sense, it had been around since the birth of the Web itself.

Excerpted from Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters , by Scott Rosenberg, published by Three Rivers Press , Copyright 2010

Mr. Rosenberg has a blog at Wordyard.

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