Project, which surveyed Internet users immediately after September 11.7 The project had been conducting telephone surveys of Internet users for some time before the crisis, and it continues surveying users even now; thus its data not only present a picture of how users behaved that day but also allow comparison with their behavior both before and after the attack.

Other useful sources of data on user behavior included Web-usage measurements from Webhancer, search statistics from major search sites such as AOL and Google, and data from content providers such as and Akamai. Together, these data provide a very telling portrait of what people wanted, needed, and expected from the Internet in those extraordinary circumstances.

The Internet as a Source of News

Many people learned of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon while they were at work or on their way to work.8 And because people often do not have access to television sets at their place of work, there is reason to believe that they then turned to Internet news sites for information.

In what is sometimes referred to as a “flash crowd”9 event, national and international demand for timely information soared, and many news Web servers—those of CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times, for example—experienced unprecedented loads. An anecdote regarding CNN’s Web site <> gives a vivid example of just how fast the demand for Internet-accessible news grew. When the director of the facility saw on TV that the second plane had just struck, he stood up in his cubicle and shouted to other staff members to take steps (such as bringing extra servers online) to prepare for an increased demand for news. By the time he sat down, that spike had already arrived. (Box 3.1 discusses the CNN experience, including steps that the network took to keep up with demand, in more detail.)


Lee Raime and Bente Kalsnes. 2001. The Commons of the Tragedy: How the Internet Was Used by Millions After the Terror Attacks to Grieve, Console, Share News, and Debate the Country’s Response. Pew Internet & American Life Project, Washington, D.C., October 10. Available online at <>.


While it is difficult to get a precise estimate, data from the Census Bureau suggest that almost half of the U.S. workforce was at work or en route when the planes hit. Information available online at <>.


The term “flash crowd” was coined by science fiction writer Larry Niven, who wrote a short story by that title about masses of people teleporting to see exciting events they see reported in the news.

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