Marydee Ojala
Editor, ONLINE Magazine
the homepage

Net Crisis

ONLINE, November 2001
Copyright © 2001 Information Today, Inc.


How people meet crises differs greatly. Some panic; others are calm to the point of non-reaction. Some become angry; others counsel understanding and acceptance. Many interpret crises through their own individual filters. Physicians think about medical implications, teachers about educational implications, and information professionals about availability and accuracy of information.

Information Today, Inc. faced a crisis on September 11, 2001 at Web Search University. The vendor showcase and breakfast had run from 7:30 to just before 9 in the morning. The first two session tracks began promptly at 9 and were to run until 10:30. Attendees were seated, speakers were beginning their presentations, the doors to the rooms were closed. Only a few people remained outside the presentation rooms.

Then we heard the news. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Minutes later we heard about the second plane. We were shocked, stupefied, stunned, and conscious that we had some crisis decisions to make. Should we panic, stop the show, and possibly cause harm? Should we not react, downplay the whole thing, and possibly cause harm? Most of the vendors still had live connections. We're information professionals; we ran to the vendors' laptops and asked them to find out anything they could about this tragic attack.

Search engines such as AltaVista and AlltheWeb had no news. Not surprising, since they spider, index, and present already-created Web pages, not breaking news. Major news sites, such as CNN and MSNBC, were already overloaded. Then we heard about the Pentagon attack. Switching to Washington Post's Web site indirectly confirmed the report: We couldn't get it to load either.

What worked? Just before 10, when I was thoroughly frustrated with the Web, I tried Factiva's Dow Jones Interactive service. As a subscription service, it responded immediately. Although it did not give complete coverage, the wire services that update quickly on DJI confirmed terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. By this time, the hotel had set up television sets in the lobby. wasn't answering, but CNN live on TV was broadcasting.

Another technology kicked in. A few people exited the rooms because their mobile phones had rung. One gentleman came out staring at disbelief at his Blackberry. The sessions ended and we circulated with the news. Before the next sessions began, we made announcements about the events. We continued with Web Search University, although many local attendees left to return to their jobs. It was our very small act of defiance. We would not give in to terrorism.

As for the Web sites, access improved as the day wore on. Cutting out bandwidth-hogging features, sites slimmed themselves to accommodate more users. Personal accounts began to be posted on Weblogs. LexisNexis searched its archives for information and offered free access. BusinessWire waived its fee to post-crisis releases. Librarian discussion lists hummed with shared information, shared sources. Rumors and misinformation inevitably contribute to crisis atmospheres; information professionals debunked and corrected them. Our online community showed its professionalism in this very difficult time.

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