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E-mail kept us talking

September 13, 2001

The Internet, which was designed during the Cold War with global conflict in mind, linked millions of people Tuesday who desperately wanted to talk to each other. E-mail and instant messaging worked even when phone networks did not.

Heart-rending first-person descriptions of horror mingled with levelheaded analysis and warnings against precipitous action while cries for vengeance flowed around lists of people who were reassuring friends and loved ones that they were all right.

E-mail was the overwhelming means of making sure that family and loved ones were well.

"Wow, am I glad to see your name pop up on my screen," was a typical reply to users in the devastated cities as they sent out news of their friends and families to their entire mailing lists.

David Kramer, a 20-year-old junior at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said he and many of his classmates spent much of the day online. They had tried calling friends and family on their landline and cell phones but found they were jammed.

"One of my roommates is from Boston and his dad was supposed to be flying this morning out of Logan. He was obviously terrified," Kramer remembered.

In this case, technology was a godsend: His dad was able to find an Internet terminal at the airport and send off an e-mail telling his son he was OK and hadn't left.

"The Internet was born for this sort of attack," said Caron Merrill, director of market research for Hurwitz Inc., in Boston. "You couldn't get anybody on the phone. There was no problem with the Internet. Instant messaging was definitely a must-have today. That's what it was born for. War time."

When it came to many-to-many connections, the Internet showed what it was made of. It provided the human contact to match the rush of news.

At blinding speed it morphed and evolved to meet its users' needs. Suddenly, it was a lifeline for loved ones and a public forum for those who needed a place to yell their cries for vengeance or who simply wanted answers.

This is not to say that the Internet did not display the worst of human nature. One member of eBay briefly put up for auction pictures of the World Trade Center. Outraged eBay administrators rapidly took them down.

Within minutes of the attacks, Internet sites began to dedicate portions of their sites to serve as virtual support groups.

America Online put up a link on one of its main screens that urged, "Share your sympathy." Visitors found prayers and some kind words. But mostly they found anger and profanity. "This is a sick chat," wrote one participant who was waiting for word from his father, who works at the Pentagon. "This is a time of sadness, not a time to joke. ... Have a little compassion," lectured another.


By JOEL GARREAU THE WASHINGTON POST, Copyright 2001 The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc.


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