Internet Plays Backup Role During Crisis

The Internet may have seemed full to capacity in the wake of terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but a survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found the Internet was used mainly to supplement TV and telephones.

Thirty percent of Internet users said the Internet helped them learn about what was happening in the first days after the attack occurred, and 29 percent said the Internet helped them connect with people they needed to reach.

Americans relied mostly on television for their news and their telephones for communication during the days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were struck. The Internet, including email and instant messaging, supplemented these traditional media as both a communications tool and a source for news. According to the Pew Project, 81 percent of all Americans said they got most of their information from television, 11 percent said they received most of their information from radio and 3 percent cited the Internet as the source of most of their information.

The Pew Project found that 74 percent of all Americans used the phone or email to get in touch with family and friends in the two days after the attack. Among Internet users, 82 percent used the phone or email to make contact in the same time frame. Internet users were more likely than non-Internet users to be using the phone to reach potential victims on the day of the attack. Fifteen percent of Internet users sent email about the crisis to family members, and 12 percent sent email to friends. Six percent of Internet users sent instant messages on Tuesday, which Pew found to be same number of people who would be sending instant messages on any given day.

In the two days after the attack, 13 percent of Internet users attended “virtual meetings” or participated in chat room discussions or bulletin boards, the Pew Project found. These numbers are substantially higher than normal. Only 4 percent of Americans with Internet access visit chat rooms on any given day.

The Pew survey also asked about visits to news-related Web sites, many of which became unavailable as people tried to follow events online. Obviously, a far greater number of Internet users headed to news sites than on an average day. On the day of the attack, 29 percent of Internet users (more than 30 million people) went looking for news online. Pew found this to be one-third greater than the normal number of online news seekers. Overall, 36 percent of Internet users went online looking for news in the first two days after the attack.

These numbers may not sound like enough to send news Web sites screeching to a halt, but they did. Keynote Systems, which measures Web site performance, found that the Internet backbone infrastructure was not significantly affected the day of the attack, but there was an overall decline in Internet performance for users trying to access Web sites starting at 9 a.m. EDT. The decline peaked at 10:15 a.m. and returned to normal over the next few hours.

The Keynote Business 40 Internet Performance Index, which measures the performance of 40 top business Web sites, including major news sites and search engines, as experienced by users at work over high-speed connections, started to slow coinciding with the start of the attack. Just how slow? On Monday, September 10, the overall Index average at 10:15 a.m. was approximately 5.0 seconds. On Tuesday (the day of the attack) at the same time, the Index average reached 12.9 seconds. It returned to normal by mid-afternoon.

As for the ability of Internet users to reach news sites, Keynote measured 0 percent availability for CNN.com, NYTimes.com and ABCNews.com from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m, immediately following the attacks. USAToday.com declined to 18.2 percent availability, and MSNBC.com to 22.0 percent availability. In order to reduce the impact on their servers, most of the news sites reduced the size of their homepages by eliminating graphics. For example, CNN.com’s homepage before the event was in excess of 255 KB; afterwards it was reduced to about 20 KB.

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