“Where were you when…?”: Innovation, community, and history converge

“Where were you when…” is a familiar start to discussing major recent historic events. In the wake of the news about Osama bin Laden’s death, “Where were you when you heard the news of his death?” is now being asked and discussed in many forum. I realized that for me the most apt answer is “on Twitter.”

Screen shot of Twitter tweets on bin Laden DNA

Tweets regarding DNA testing for bin Laden's identification

That’s where the news first broke. That’s where many of us first heard about the pending announcement from President Obama. Where a chief of staff of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed to confirm the rumors. Where a mixture of surprise, relief, concern, dark humor, celebration, and gratitude to the soldiers and the president started lasting discussions about the ramifications of such an event over an hour before the news was officially confirmed. Where the world learned about “the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.” Where many of us marveled at how Twitter connected us while withstanding the barrage of 5,106 tweets per second at its peak.

How different from a decade ago. On September 11, 2001, I was working at home, intently focused a specification I was writing, disconnected from the world. It wasn’t until early afternoon when I sent some inconsequential chat message to my boyfriend (now husband), and he asked whether I had seen the news. I turned on the TV and watched in horror and astonishment. Hours after the events of that morning, I finally found out what had happened.

On May 1, 2011, I was at home again. In contrast to my experience 10 years prior, I was not only informed even before the official news, but felt a sense of connection and community as I read each personal response. I watched the live stream of President Obama’s announcement on WhiteHouse.gov. I read that night (and since) news stories and opinions from the nytimes.com, cnn.com, npr.org, bbc.co.uk, and english.aljazeera.net linked by people I follow. Those insightful stories as well as the more thoughtful comments of readers that have deepened my understanding of the world response as well as many personal yet shared experiences.

I am struck by how so much has changed in 10 years in the ways we learn about and experience history in the making. The degree to which we can share the very human side of major events throughout the world is wonderful and humbling. Twitter is just the first of the innovations that connected the world in a way impossible in 2001. Blogs, photo-sharing sites, and Wikipedia further provide perspective from regular people and deliver a shared experience in a truly global community.

Bryce Roberts shares a similiar observation in “Ten Years of Innovation Highlighted in One Night.” He also marvels at how innovations have changed how people learn about major events and share their experiences. He relates on the diverse collection of sources of information that he tapped into and notes that TV and radio sources that were key to his 9/11 information flow were absent in learning about bin Laden’s death. For me, more traditional media demonstrated how innovation allowed their role in a shared human experience to evolve, now encouraging discussion and engagement not merely consumption of information. Mr. Roberts concludes with a wonderful summary, echoing my own thoughts:

“But, having these two events bookend 10 years of experience shines a light on just how much innovation we’ve been a part of in such a short amount of time. So this morning I’m grateful for the innovators pushing forward technologies that bring us together and enable us to share these human experiences. And, I can’t help but be hopeful for what the next 10 years will bring.”

These innovations have made it easier for us all to be active participants, if only in a small way, even in the biggest of events happening in our world. What innovations will influence how we answer “Where were you when… ?” as history continues to be written so boldly? We should not wait 10 years, though. How can we continue to use these innovations to continue the conversation and sharing the experience in the meantime? What new innovations are needed to strengthen the connection and community? Innovations that allow us to create a shared understanding can do more to overcome the challenges we still face.

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