I am writing this article in the shadow of the grossest display of terrorism in the history of the United States. I do not wish to expend too many words dwelling on the negative; instead, I would like to make mention of the good that was done via the Internet. (Although the worst was truly bad. The use of spamming by false charities is absolutely appalling to me. Not to mention the Nimda virus. Both are ample evidence of the truism that the Internet is simply a tool dependent on the intent of its user.)
Although it was the worst of times, the Internet displayed the best of what it can do. The utilization of online services in the service of good is what connecting with consumers and facilitating the accomplishment of their desires is all about.
The first example is the use of email and instant messaging to deliver messages of parting during the disaster. While the use of cell phones has been much highlighted, the use of online communications immediately after the attack also allowed many to send out final words of love.
Another example of the utility of online communication in the aftermath was the use of email and the Internet to solicit (and, hopefully, receive) tidings of safety. Phone service in the affected areas was almost nonexistent, but emailed "I'm OK" messages got through; email lists were used to keep tabs on groups of friends and colleagues. Another positive use was the creation of online status sheets that allowed survivors to post their news and for family and friends to post queries about their loved ones.
The Internet was a fine source for breaking news about the event. Harris Interactive conducted a poll about sources of information about the attacks. While television was the most-used primary source for 78 percent of online adults, and the Internet was the primary source for only 3 percent, the Internet was used by 64 percent as an information source. Thirty-six percent of these adults used the Internet because of the more detailed information they could find; 28 percent enjoyed that they could access the Internet while at work; and 30 percent believed that the Internet had information they could not find elsewhere.
While online news sources cannot yet truly compete with television, both in visuals or in "speed to story" (TV reporters can verbally speak to information as soon as they see it, while online news sources rely heavily on the written word, which takes longer to prepare), the demand for online news showed the promise of online news at its best.
Google's Zeitgeist showed that within minutes of the attack, users queried for "world trade center" more than 2,000 times a minute. Searches for "pentagon" and "osama bin laden" also saw spikes. According to Reuters, CNN.com served 9 million page views per hour, compared with a normal load of 11 million pages per day. Also, news sites experienced a ten-fold increase in page load times, from an average of 3 seconds per page to 40 seconds per page due to the volume of visitors. Eventually, many news sites dispensed with many graphics and interactive content to publish fast-loading, mostly text pages.
Soon after news of the tragedy sunk in, many sites began using the Internet to do good. Amazon was one of the biggest and first to begin collecting donations to the American Red Cross. Within a few days after the attack, users had donated over $5.7 million via Amazon. More sites collecting donations included eBay and PayPal, among others.
The Internet allowed for a national show of feelings. Many corporate sites, content sites, and personal sites posted messages of unity, sympathy, and support. According to the Harris poll, 48 percent of respondents said "the use of the Internet helped them deal with the tragedy." The ease of online communication may have provided a cathartic means of expressing their thoughts. Forty-seven percent of adults had discussed the tragedy online, and many email chains spread survivor accounts and uplifting thoughts across the nation.
All in all, and with a few notable exceptions, the Internet lived up to its expectations and displayed great potential during these tragic events. We can only hope that it can continue to help us cope and to unify and inform us in the critical months ahead.
Editor's note: For more on the impact of the September 11 attack, check the special section of internet.com's E-Commerce/Marketing Channel, The Trade Center Disaster: Industry Response.
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Blake Rohrbacher is a consultant with Keally Consulting. Keally develops marketing and business strategy for clients who want to do better business online. Keally does site evaluation and optimization to help clients connect with their customers and provides market analysis, data modeling, and business planning expertise to help complement clients' in-house expertise.
March 19, 2014