Sunday, September 18, 2011

Decade-old memories

I passed up writing about a supposedly important anniversary last week. I didn't write about it because, honestly, it didn't really affect me.

I was in college at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the 2001 Fall semester. Since 11 September, 2001, was a Tuesday morning, I was in an early lab class. After lab I had the whole rest of the day open so I went back to the IEEE lounge in the basement of the engineering building. That's when another student, well known for being a bit of a cut-up, said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

Of course I said, "That's a really bad joke, James."

But I still walked to the computer lab down the hall to find out the story. I sat down at an open computer and thought about where to find the information I was looking for. You had to do that in those days. Remember that Google was only a few years old and hadn't overthrown the top search engines of the day, Lycos and Alta Vista. As this story was supposedly happening in New York, my first stop was the New York Times, the first New York-based newspaper I could think of. Their site wasn't available that day, my first indication that there might be something to this story. So I tried the Washington Post, our hometown paper there inside the Beltway. Also unavailable that morning. Now I'm thinking I need to try for a server well outside the supposed area. The LA Times was showing news from the night before. They hadn't even woken up yet to update their website. I finally hit upon the Tampa Tribune, who was both awake and online. That's when the towers started falling.

In the following years, many whitepapers would be written about dealing with surge capacity for news websites and many more about continuity of operations. The University's administration was castigated for not evacuating the school to which their response was, "Where are the students supposed to go? All the flights have been grounded and anywhere could have been a target." There was a campus-wide memorial on the 12th and classes were cancelled that day. Looking up and seeing military fighter jets on patrol instead of the normal passenger jet contrails was the eeriest part. We were concerned about reopening the world's oldest continuously operating airport.

Looking back, it's stunning how differently information spread compared to today. Slower, for one thing. A lot of the tools we take for granted now just didn't exist back then. Some of the biggest web properties from back then are gone now. I already mentioned that Google was just another player in the web search space and no one specialized in news. The world wide web wasn't instant yet, barely even high-speed, and a lot of companies were still getting used to just being online. There were no smartphones or even widespread network connections; you had to go find a computer to do anything online. Heck, Verizon had only just been formed by some of the baby Bells merging back together.

Chat rooms were still a thing. I spent the night of 11 September, 2001, online (dial-up into the campus modem pool) sharing thoughts with friends. We talked about that day's events, what the future was going to be like, hopes and fears, patriotic slogans, and cries for the enemy's head. It covered the full gamut of emotion and content. A community of people like any other, except it only existed in virtual space. Even by 2001 you could have friends whom you've never met and only know by a screen name and maybe emailed pictures. You know that friend you can identify before you see their face or hear their voice, just by they way the walk or how they greet you? I could identify some of my Nightshare friends by their typing style, without even looking at their screen name. We all talked about everything that night.

And we stayed up all night looking for the one from New York who never logged in again.