The Guardian and @911tenyearsago - several months on

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 18 April 2012
“Lots of RT love for @titanicrealtime, yet @Guardian got huge criticism for something similar 10 years after Sept 11. Time a great healer.” - @MarcSettle

I noticed this tweet by Marc Blank-Settle at the weekend, and it has prompted me to finally publish something I originally wrote last September...

On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA, the Guardian began tweeting a factual real-time account of events using the account @911tenyearsago. After 16 tweets, in the face of mounting criticism, the paper stopped the account.

I usually describe my interest as being “where journalism meets audiences meets technology”, and I think this was a fascinating example.

A couple of weeks before the anniversary, we held a “UX drop-in” at the Guardian, and as part of it our Interactive Editor Jonathan Richards talked about the careful design process of our 9/11 memories interactive. He explained how everything, from the design of the font, to the call to actions, to the example memories given was carefully chosen to send a respectful tone, and to elicit respectful responses. After all, opening a comment thread on any news site about 9/11 appears to be granting a licence to 9/11 “truthers”, America-haters, Israel-haters, Muslim-haters, GOP-haters, socialism-haters and, in fact, most types of internet dicks to spew hate across it.

The interactive team were very successful with that approach, finding that only one in a hundred memories or so were not suitable for publication.

Why, then, was the @911tenyearsago Twitter stream so different?

After all the pure text - a point-by-point timeline - has been repeatedly written by papers since that day, and a version of it would have been published by much of the world’s press on September 12th 2001.

I think tone and context were the key here. Unlike the interactive, there isn’t much you can do with a Twitter account to vary tone. Line by line, the tweets viewed out of context are stark.

Several people noted that @AP and @Daily were carrying out a similar exercise, without attracting the volume of opprobrium that the Guardian account was generating. It was also pointed out that the History Channel was replaying footage in real-time, and that this was much more graphic than the text timeline, yet was not attracting similar criticism. The nature of the source may be a factor here - the Guardian has a political attitude and reputation when commenting as an outsider-looking-in on American politics that is perhaps different to the others.

I think there is also something about the usually personal nature of a Twitter timeline that made this presentation stand out. Whereas @AP and @Daily were using their regular Twitter presence, and interspersing the timeline as a reminder, the @911tenyearsago account seemed more like “re-living” rather than “reflecting”.

Having decided to stop the account after those 16 tweets, there is a question of what the deletion etiquette should be. Deleting the tweets and the account would have opened the paper up to accusation of trying to “cover up” what had happened, whilst leaving the tweets there meant they could still cause offence. They were still being retweeted as if the account was active long after the decision to stop had been taken.

(At the time of publishing this blog post the account was still live.)

My personal feeling is that, given the reaction, it was right to stop tweeting. Despite some tweeters saying they had been finding the content useful or emotionally powerful, it wasn’t a day to be bloody-minded if what you were doing was causing offence.

Here is a Storify I made of some of the reaction on the day:

After I retweeted Marc at the weekend, he @messaged me with this:

“I’m left wondering which tragedies less than 100 years ago but more than 10 can be livetweeted. Aberfan? Hillsborough? (prob not)” - @MarcSettle

Judging by something else I saw in my timeline he was right:

“I hope nobody does a fucking Hillsborough real time Twitter account tomorrow.” - @FrizFrizzle

Disclaimer: This is personal blog. The views expressed are my own, and do not reflect the views of Guardian News and Media Limited, or any current or former employers or clients. Read my blogging principles.

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