When America Chatted about 9/11 Online

Jesse Kornbluth was the editorial director of AOL from 1997 to 2002. This article is adapted from his book, “Because We Are Americans: What We Discovered on September 11, 2001,", which recounts the reaction on the AOL service to the 9/11.

It was warm and clear on the morning of September 11, with just a hint of fall in the air. Going to work on a day like that, you feel how good life is, and you think about taking a stroll at lunch, walking home through the park, or heading out to a baseball stadium in the cool of the evening to catch one of our pennant contenders play in a game that really matters.

But as I stepped off a downtown bus at 8:50 A.M., all those pleasant thoughts vanished. For in America’s busiest city, with the work day just beginning, people were standing around, looking up at a thick stream of dark smoke.

“A plane hit the World Trade Center,” someone said.

There was no panic, just puzzlement: How does a plane, on a sparkling day, crash into a skyscraper so tall you can see it for miles? Something felt wrong. I went upstairs, logged on to AOL and turned on CNN.

Minutes later, I watched a jetliner zoom across the television screen and crash into the Trade Center’s second tower.

My screen filled with Instant Messages. The ones from friends were urgent and personal: “I’m okay. Are you?” The ones from AOL colleagues in other buildings asked the same question. But my co-workers and I quickly moved beyond our own reactions to practicality: “Let’s get to work.”

And so, minutes after the second plane hit the Trade Center and with two other hijacked planes still hurtling toward their targets, AOL set about reporting the awful events. By 9:45 A.M., we had opened a virtual auditorium, a giant chatroom that was a signature feature of the AOL service at the time, that quickly attracted the largest audience in our history.

For the next four hours, it was my privilege to host that auditorium. Reading the transcript now, I flash back to that tense morning, the need to give out accurate informative, the overarching importance of not increasing the fear of our members. It began like this.....

AOL HOST: This is what we know so far. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. Another hit the Pentagon. The White House and the Pentagon have been evacuated.

MEMBER: How many people were hurt?

AOL HOST: Not known. But it does appear that one plane was an American Airlines 767 hijacked from Boston shortly after takeoff. I can only think that plane had 100+ people on it.

MEMBER: Who do you think is responsible for this?

AOL HOST: “Terrorists” is too vague, but it’s the best we can say right now.

MEMBER: I want to know what they are going to do about the military.

AOL HOST: I would say that we are on full military alert.

MEMBER: Is the White House on fire?

AOL HOST: No. There is a fire at the Pentagon, where a plane seems to have crashed.

MEMBER: Who has claimed responsibility for these acts of terrorism?

AOL HOST: No one. And that is very nervous-making.

MEMBER: Would you speculate on responsibility? They keep saying Palestinians, but this is more like Iraq, considering the recent plane downings near Baran.

AOL HOST: I hear you, but I think it’s best not to speculate just yet.

MEMBER: Will this lead to a war?

AOL HOST: If so, it will be a different kind of war than we usually fight.

MEMBER: Is there any reason to believe the terrorists will attack the White House?

AOL HOST: If so, I think it would have happened already. But we do not know if there were other planes in the air.

And so it went, hour after hour. As the day wore on, you could sense a community forming. In New York City, phone service was disrupted; people quickly discovered that online services were the simplest way to communicate. They began with Instant Messages --- just on AOL, 1.2 billion were sent that day. They followed up with message board posts. Then, as the unthinkable reality began to sink in, people shared their fears and consoled one another.

Experts on terrorism and trauma streamed into our virtual auditoriums --- which remained open and staffed around the clock --- and gave us advice about talking to our children and dealing with our own distress.

Hundreds of auditorium events, tens of thousands of message board posts, millions of votes in our polls, millions of dollars donated. But even more meaningful was the shift --- from confusion to resolve, from grief to inspiration --- that you could chart in the chats and on the boards.

That’s why it wasn’t hard for those of us at AOL who informed and comforted our community to work night and day for weeks with no time to take care of our own bruises and mourn our own losses. Our focus was completely on the names on our Buddy Lists we’d never hear from again and all the people who mourned them.

When I look back on the five years I spent at AOL, I can think of dozens of examples of special programming that really was special. But what we did on 9/11 and the weeks that followed --- that effort stands alone. Because in that dark September, we fulfilled the mission of an online service. We served.