Volume 14 Numbers 1 and 2, 2004
EXPRESSION IN THE POST-SEPTEMBER 11TH WEB SPHERE
University of Wisconsin - Madison
University of Washington
Abstract. In this article we demonstrate that the Web functioned as a both a site and surface for personal expression after the events of 9/11/01. First, we identify the forms of expression manifested on the Web in the three weeks (September 11th -October 2nd) following 9/11, noting changes in dominant forms of expression over time that deserve further study. Next we compare the post-9/11 Web expression with emotional phases identified in the literature on public mourning and bereavement. We demonstrate that post-9/11 Web expression included more than these emotions, suggesting that the functions of the Web-based post-9/11 expression went beyond public mourning and bereavement and included attempts at analysis, sense-making, and advocacy. We conclude by arguing that the broader range of expression on the Web after 9/11 (in contrast with expression documented from offline/non-Web contexts in the public mourning and the bereavement literature), is at least partially due to characteristics of the Web and processes/practices of Web production that distinguish it from traditional broadcast and print media.
crises exacerbate our need and test our ability to communicate with each
other. Disasters simultaneously create
an urgent demand for accurate information and frustrate communication efforts by
taking down telephone lines, blocking roads, and cutting off power
sources. September 11, 2001 was no different. The attacks on the
News organizations responded to the attacks by interrupting normal broadcasts in favor of round-the-clock live coverage and newspapers printed special editions. According to a survey conducted 48 hours after the attacks, television served as the primary source of information both during and immediately after the attacks, capturing the attention of over 80% of those surveyed (Rainie & Kalsnes, 2001). Early evaluations of the media’s response to the crisis tended to praise the response of traditional media, such as television, radio, and newspapers, while giving the Internet mixed reviews (e.g. Goldsborough, 2001). However, most of these evaluations of the Internet’s performance were focused on its ability to provide timely news and information relative to traditional forms of media—a comparison that overlooks the broader affordances and potential functions of the Internet in a crisis situation.
and other traditional forms of mass/news media are limited in their utility
during a crisis because information is drawn from a relatively small set of
sources, and the flow of communication is primarily unidirectional. The common
rhetorical construction of users of traditional mass media as “media consumers”
implies passivity, corresponding with a notion of media as channels through
which a small set of actors transmit messages to large audiences. In contrast, the Internet supports a broad
array of user actions, from access to news from a wide range of sources, to
co-production of news, to opportunities to produce and share personal responses
with large and diverse audiences (Schneider & Foot, 2003). Rainie
and Kalsnes (2001) found that
within hours of the attacks people turned to the Internet in record numbers,
flooding news sites and creating an unprecedented demand for some government
sites. A survey conducted after
Our understanding of the roles traditionally assumed by the mass media during a crisis is limited. Historically, this field of research has focused on the role of the mass media in preparing communities for impending disasters through the dissemination of warnings or evacuation announcements. However, this approach fails to recognize the dual and occasionally conflicting goals of reporting events as they occur and participating in disaster prevention and response activities (Quarantelli, 1989). In addition, this perspective fails to recognize the limitations of these roles during times of “collective stress and mass emergency situations such as…terrorist attacks…” (Quarantelli, 1989, p.2). Information on citizens’ media use and needs during a crisis is equally limited. Studies have focused primarily on what forms of media those affected turned to either during or immediately after a traumatic event, finding a consistent preference for television coverage (Piotrowski & Armstrong, 1998; Rainie & Kalsnes, 2001). However, it should be noted that in these studies preferences were measured in terms of those actions, (such as providing news coverage), at which television excels and ignored the broader affordances of newer technology. For example, in Piotrowski and Armstrong’s study of media preference after Hurricane Danny, the only measure of Internet use was limited to reliance on Internet weather sites.
Most natural or localized disasters may claim national or international attention for a few days, given the usual patterns of traditional mass media coverage. In contrast, mass media coverage of the September 11th attacks, and television in particular, provided a simultaneous experience of the attacks and ongoing coverage of their aftermath for viewers around the world, over the course of several weeks. This had a tri-fold effect of: 1.) extending the geographical boundaries of the disaster internationally; 2.) multiplying the number of people who shared in a mediated experience of the attacks and the resulting emotional/ psychological devastation; and 3.) lengthening the window of time during which media users’ attention was focused almost solely on the crisis. However, while television enabled viewers to identify with the victims of the tragedy and thus generated a vicarious experience of the event (Stone & Pennebaker, 2002), unlike the Internet, it did not enable a large-scale exchange of personal responses among viewers.
This study of online expression in the wake of 9/11 provides an understanding of how the Internet was employed by many as a tool for communication and coping in the aftermath of an international crisis. It sheds light on the types of public expression evoked by personal or mediated exposure to a crisis, and posted on the Internet. It also serves as a case study in collective mourning on the Internet. Previous studies of online grief have determined that there exists a desire to talk about collective traumatic experiences online (Cose, 1999; Harris, 1999; Stone & Pennebaker, 2002), but few have been able to examine what people share and how they express themselves in their discussions.  This study of expression, produced by a broad range of entities and posted on Web sites, provides further illumination of how people cope with tragedy of this magnitude.
The research questions guiding this analysis are: 1.) what kinds of expression were posted on the Web after 9/11/01; 2.) how prevalent was of each type of expression in a range of Web sites during the first three weeks after the attacks?; and 3.) how do these forms of online expression compare with public mourning and bereavement? After reviewing the literature on the Web in crisis communication, public mourning and bereavement, we reveal how the Web functioned as a both a site and surface for personal expression after the events of 9/11/01. First we identify the forms of expression manifested on the Web in the three weeks (September 11th -October 2nd) following 9/11, noting changes in dominant forms of expression over time that deserve further study. Next we compare the post-9/11 Web expression with emotional phases identified in the literature on public mourning and bereavement. We demonstrate that post-9/11 Web expression included more than these emotions, suggesting that the functions of the Web-based post-9/11 expression went beyond public mourning and bereavement and included attempts at analysis, sense-making, and advocacy. We conclude by arguing that the broader range of expression on the Web after 9/11 (in contrast with expression documented from offline/non-Web contexts in the public mourning and the bereavement literature), is at least partially due to characteristics of the Web and processes/practices of Web production that distinguish it from traditional broadcast and print media.
Crisis communication research has barely begun to examine the role or potential uses for the Internet during a crisis. Friedman (2001) alludes to historical examples of the Internet’s utility in crisis situations and the potential for future reliance on the Internet to reach large audiences. However, this view perpetuates a vision of the Internet as an extension of the traditional mass media, whose communication capabilities are limited to a unidirectional flow of information with little or no input or response from the users. Many have based their appraisal of the Internet’s ‘success’ during a crisis on its ability to provide information and support interpersonal communication needs (e.g. Ojala, 2001). Goldsborough (2001) describes the superior response of ‘old media’ such as television and newspapers during the attacks, focusing on their reliability and quick response. However, he goes on to note the “distinct advantage” the Internet holds by enabling the "natural human impulse to reach out to others during a disaster". Fisher and Porter (2001) also acknowledge that the communication advantage of the Internet is greater than its ability to mimic the action of the television in providing information, and the telephone in helping us to communicate. Golson further elaborated on this distinction between the Internet and other forms of media by contrasting the psychological experience of using the Internet or television. He finds, that through the Internet, we are "able to express emotion collectively, not just have emotion beamed at us” (2001, p.20).
responses to such large-scale traumatic events such as the 9/11 attacks are not
yet well understood. Traditionally,
studies of the impact of disasters focus on the emotions of individuals who
directly experience loss of friends, family, or property. Anticipated reactions include experiences of
grief, as characterized by shock, numbness, sadness, sense of loss, anger, fear
and anxiety, guilt, separation pain, and more (Shuchter & Zisook, 1993).
Contrary to many media depictions of public reactions to large-scale crises,
however, widespread panic is not a common occurrence (Quarantelli, 1989). Grief, both public and private,
progresses rapidly through three distinct stages: shock and disbelief,
separation pain, and mourning (Raphael, 1983). While the first two stages may pass quickly,
the third stage, mourning, characterized by a need to speak of the dead, may
last considerably longer (Raphael, 1983). According to Stone and Pennebaker
(2002), the desire to talk about a shared traumatic event
with others is a common reaction to a disaster. And, Taylor and Fraser (1980, as cited in Raphael, 1983) suggest that providing
rescue workers the opportunity to talk through their experience reduced the
negative physical and psychological symptoms associated with exposure to
crises. When the losses occur locally but involve elements or symbols of
national identity, such as the
Raphael (1983) argues that the intensity of the emotional response to a disaster is associated with the magnitude of the loss, as measured by the following elements: the loss of human life, home, possessions, and sense of security. Other aspects of a crisis, all applicable to September 11, can also heighten the emotional impact, including the suddenness of the attacks, the magnitude of the losses, and being caused by humans rather than nature (Raphael; Sitterle & Gurwitch, 1999). In addition, research indicates that a high level of exposure to a disaster or crisis through television has two main effects on the emotions evoked by a crisis. First, television tends to heighten the intensity of emotional response in viewers by increasing an audience’s identification with victims (Stone & Pennebaker, 2002), and second, continuous exposure to the event eliminates the psychological defense of denial (Jorgensen-Earp & Lanzilotti, 1998). A study of children whose experience of the Oklahoma City bombing was television-mediated and who showed signs of emotional trauma two years after the event highlights the strength of television in evoking strong emotional responses among viewers (Pfefferbaum, et al., 2000). Thus the high level and extended duration of media coverage of the attacks, in combination with the large-scale loss of life and destruction of property affiliated with national identity, can be assumed to have elicited intense emotional responses among television viewers. Yet despite their role in amplifying the effects of the disaster on audiences traditionally outside of the localized area of the disasters, other than the Internet, traditional broadcast media provided little, if any outlet for the expression of the emotions they evoked.
September 11th attacks were the largest attacks on American soil
study offers an exploratory analysis of expression on the Web in response to an
international crisis. Also, it provides a look at how the Internet provided a
different service as a two-way communication tool in a large-scale crisis,
suggesting that our models of mass communication roles in crisis are too
limited. In addition, it implies that studies of community reactions to trauma
should extend beyond people’s self-reported responses to disaster and move
toward examining how people created and participated in large-scale
communicative exchanges in their efforts to cope with trauma. Employing an
adaptation of the distinction between site and surface introduced by
We focus in this study on Web sites that allowed people to both access the expression provided by others and those sites which supported the production and posting of expression to public spaces on the Internet. Moreover, we have limited this analysis to 9/11-related expression posted in public spaces on the Internet, that is, spaces that could be accessed without existence of a pre-established relationship or need for membership in an organization. These included chat rooms, message boards, guest books, listservs, and Web sites maintained by a variety of producers including individuals, corporations/businesses, non-profits, governments, and others. We suggest that these spaces functioned as both “sites” and “surfaces” for communication (Taylor & van Every, 2000).
data for this study were Web materials captured in the September 11 Web Archive (http://september11.archive.org). The archive is a collection
of Web sites identified, collected, and cataloged by the U.S. Library of Congress,
the Internet Archive, the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and WebArchivist.org,
in collaboration with volunteers from around the world. Each Web site identified
as containing material relevant to 9/11 was archived on a daily basis between
analysis of archival impressions of 247 English-language Web sites, produced
by a range of entities, (based primarily in the
A preliminary analysis of expression on these Web sites demonstrated that in order to capture the full range of expression in the post-9/11 Web sphere, we needed to go beyond categories of emotion identified in grief and bereavement literature to include expressions such as analysis and response advocacy. Through our preliminary analysis we identified the following nine types of expression: 1.) initial emotion; 2.) depressive emotion; 3.) negative emotion; 4.) religious/spiritual expression ; 5.) patriotism ; 6.) critical analysis; 7.) advocacy of a conciliatory response; 8.) advocacy of a hostile/aggressive response, and 9) misuse or abuse of a Web site.
type of expression coded as initial emotion includes expressions of shock,
disbelief, incredulity or otherwise a sense of surreality.
Depressive emotion included expressions of sadness, sense of loss or
condolences to victims, their families, etc.
Negative emotion included expressions of anger, fear, and/or hate. Religious or spiritual expression consisted
of references to prayer, quotations taken from religious or spiritual texts,
and phrases such as “God bless you”.
Patriotic expression was characterized by support for relief and rescue
verifying these categories of expression in relation to the data, we then
systematically coded up to three different impressions of each Web site (depending
on availability in the archive) to establish the prevalence of each of these
types of expression. To establish the prevalence of each type of expression
across these sites over time, we coded multiple impressions of each Web site;
one impression for each of the three weeks after the attacks (September 11th-October
2nd, 2001), based on their availability in the archive.
Due to the large variance in the nature of the Web sites, it was necessary
to standardize the amount of expression coded per impression of a site.
This was accomplished by analyzing the first five discrete units of
textual expression; a discrete unit was defined as a temporally bounded entry
posted to the Internet by an author. All
expression was coded for manifest content. Thus a unit could be attributed
to multiple categories. For example, the phrase ‘God Bless
Findings and Discussion
Analysis of the prevalence of each type of expression on the Web sites examined, and cursory analysis of their change over time, revealed the following patterns (see Table 1). The most common type of expression, depressive expression (sadness, grief, condolences), appeared on 75% of Web sites analyzed, and unlike the other types, depressive expression appeared consistently throughout the time period of this study.
Religious or spiritual expression (references to prayer, quotations from sacred texts, etc.), the second most common subcategory, appeared on over 60% of the Web sites with declining frequency over the three weeks. While patriotic and initial expression appeared on 46% and 48% of Web sites surveyed respectively, patriotic expression was found consistently throughout the three weeks while expressions about the initial shock of the attacks was found with increasing frequency over the period of this study. Analysis of the data also reveals an increasing trend for expression in advocacy of a conciliatory response and for critical analysis or expression related to deliberation over who and what caused the attacks. At the same time, the number of sites with expression advocating a hostile or aggressive response declined over time. Misuse/abuse, the final and least common type of expression, consistently appeared on less than 10% of the Web sites in this study. The following discussion offers a more in-depth look at how these different types of expression were manifested on the Internet.
The most common form of expression, present on approximately 75% of Web sites analyzed, was depressive emotion. Together with initial and negative emotion, which appeared on 48% and 52% of Web sites respectively, these three categories constitute the type of expressive responses predicted by most studies in grief and mourning (Raphael, 1983). Whereas most research tends to lump these different types of expression together under the spectrum of emotional reactions to trauma or crises, they were recorded and analyzed separately in this study because that is how they appeared on the Internet. While these three types of expression do appear in combination in some messages, they were each manifested separately in online expression.
Based on patterns noted in the bereavement and mourning literature, we expected to see manifestations of initial emotion appearing chronologically first in online expression. Initial emotion as we’ve conceptualized it, corresponds closely to the early stages of coping with a crisis, and appeared in Internet users' messages as expressions of shock, horror, numbness, and incredulity at the attacks. One important element captured by this study further substantiated Quarantelli 's (1989) assertion that people do not tend to panic in crisis situations. The following example, taken from a single message board, where a discussion was already taking place when the attacks occurred on 9/11, shows a discussion of the crisis devoid of both panic and initial emotion, even among eyewitnesses. 
Plane crashes in to the word trade center. Apologies for
not linking to anything besides the main CNN page but there are no full stories
on this yet. The plane crashed into the building about six minutes ago, from
what the TV is saying. We are about sixty blocks north and we can see the smoke
over the skyline.
Over time, as the extent of the situation became apparent, expression became more emotional. The next example, taken from the same message board as the example above but captured several hours later, highlights this shift. Expression now tends to focus on emotional elements commonly found in people exposed to a disaster or traumatic experience.
i've spent the
entire morning alternating between a state of mind-numbing shock and
soul-twisting sadness…as i watch the news i see the city i used to call my
playground covered in rubble and smoke…50,000+ dead because someone disagreed
with an opinion our country had…and now i'm at work. trying to deal with this as people call me to tell me their
computers are acting funny…*sigh*
It should also be noted that messages exhibiting
initial expression were not limited to Internet users physically close to
are so sorry for your loss. We have shed many a tear this past week.
Pennebaker and Harber's (1993) collective coping stages model suggests that initial expression should appear and disappear quickly as people move from the emergency stage into the inhibition and adaptation stage. However, we found no evidence of a decrease in initial expression on Web sites over the three weeks of the study, although initial expression did appear less frequently over time than either negative or depressive emotion. One reason may be that as people continue to post expression related to the attacks, by telling their September 11 stories or otherwise recalling their experiences of the attacks, these emotions continue to figure prominently in their recollections.
Depressive expression appeared on nearly three-quarters of all Web sites analyzed making it the most common type of expression. Characterized by statements of sadness, a sense of loss, and condolences to families and friends of victims, depressive emotion was the most common form of expression found in this study and can be seen in the following examples.
“My heart is heavy with pain and my eyes
fill with tears as I send the families of the victims this messege.
“I am paralyzed by the horror and sadness
of what has happened. It is beyond me to express the sadness and concern I feel
for everyone who is suffering today. I am sending healing thoughts and energy
out to everyone who cannot help but be changed by this and eventually made
stronger in our resolve to stand together against such heinous, inhuman
In contrast, negative expression, characterized by expressions of anger, hate and/or fear, was manifest in a variety of forms ranging from personal stories of discrimination, to a fear of violence against Arab Americans or Muslims, to hate speech directed at terrorists or other Internet users who posted unpopular or controversial proclamations on the Internet. In the following example taken from a personal Web log, or blog, authored by Jish, he describes his experience with the new climate of racial tension after the attacks.
Wednesday, September 12
Both examples highlight the expression of anger and fear unaccompanied by the other emotions in the spectrum of bereavement. While this does not necessarily mean they should not be considered an offshoot of the mourning process, it is worthwhile noting that these emotions exist along a continuum.
Cose (1999) contends that online expressions of grief, like those shown in the preceding examples, are a thing apart from real grief. Using the example of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s sudden death, he argues that for those whose experience of a crisis occurs primarily through mediated channels, both the sense of intimacy or shared experience and grief are an illusion. Therefore, virtual grief is not accompanied by “actual pain, anger and depression”. Although it is impossible to know what emotions may have motivated people to express themselves online, the variety of expression generated after the 9/11 attacks both mimics expected patterns for emotional or psychological responses to trauma and extends beyond the predicted boundaries. Thus, the experience of the attacks, though mediated, evoked a range of response from people around the world.
A second composite category of expression involves those types of expression related to individual's attempt to "make sense" of the attacks. This sense-making process was manifested on the Web through expressions of analysis of the cause and effects of the attacks, and evaluation or advocacy of response options. The three types of related expression—critical analysis, advocacy of a hostile/aggressive response, and advocacy of a conciliatory response—were differentiated based on whether or not the expression was purely analytical, or indicated a preference for or endorsement of one form of response over another. Overall, critical analysis (37%) and advocacy of a conciliatory response (36%) appeared more frequently than advocacy of a hostile or aggressive response (25%).
Critical analysis expression often sought to answer questions such as who, what, or why. In the following post to a discussion on a message board, the author offers his/her own understanding of chosen targets and offers a potential answer to the question of ‘why?'
…The World Trade Centre
was not just another tall building; it was a symbol of
One type of expression surprisingly absent from traditional bereavement and mourning literature is religious or spiritual expression. Appearing on over 60% of the Web sites analyzed, this expression is identified by religious or spiritual messages including prayer(s), passages from religious text, and general references to a God (or Allah, etc). Most frequently this type of expression appeared as closing dialogue or as a reference to prayers and praying or in a common phrase related to blessings ("God bless...."). Other examples focused on the religious overtones behind the attacks. The following examples come from a message board open to the general public and hosted by a Web site dedicated to improving rescue and relief responses to disasters. These excerpts are representative of the religious expression that was present on Web sites produced by both sacred and secular organizations.
By salinarae (
- 18.104.22.168) on
second form of expression unmentioned in the bereavement literature, but
unsurprising in this case, stems from the renewed sense of patriotism that
emerged after the attacks. People responded by displaying the flag outside of
homes and on cars, and radio stations promoted patriotic selections such as
" God Bless
This past week, evertime I have come across an American flag, it has
brought tears to my eyes. Tears of sorrow, anger, but mostly patriotism. I love
this country. Always have the entire 18 years of my life. Despite all the critisism that America has received in the past, both from
afar and within, the world remains in total shock, for America, the home of the
proud and the free, has been violently struck at this past week. I think of it
as a flesh wound. Sure, it looks bad presently; it hurts, stings, makes you
want to cry. But it will eventually heal, leaving a scar as a remebrance, for we can never forget this tragedy.The terrorists this past week, and anyone out there
who dares to attack America must know that you can't destroy the her heart; it
has been wounded, but with the spirit of America pumping though it, it will
The final and least common form of expression, misuse and abuse, appeared on almost one out of every twelve Web sites. We categorized expression as misuse if it was incongruent or inappropriate to the context or purpose of a Web site, or abuse if it ignored or transgressed the site producers' explicit intentions for allowing public expression their particular Web site. Obvious and subtle forms of abuse and misuse were apparent on Web sites, and both provide information about how some Internet users took advantage of the sudden opportunity 9/11 provided to create online expression. Examples of misuse and abuse include entering false identities into victim’s registries, trying to solicit business on memorial message boards, and general acts of cyber-vandalism. It should also be noted that we cannot know how much attempted abuse or misuse was precluded by site producers who removed inappropriate expression before it reached the public.
The following example of abuse was quite extensive and occurred on a memorial Web site offering visitors the opportunity to ‘pay their respects to the victims’ by lighting a virtual memorial candle. Visitors were given the option of including their name or a brief message underneath the candle, and many people did post messages reflecting the site producer's intention. Examples of entries that accorded with the site producer’s intent included:
“Melissa Woodruff, God Bless All”;
“In loveing memory Off 911 day love amber”;
“To the courageous who gave their lives”.
However, some users abused the opportunity to post expression and generated candles with the following messages:
“NUKE OSAMA + SADDAM + CASTRO NOW !!!!!!”,
NEVER AGAIN~PRE-EMPTIVELY NUKE OSAMA NOW”,
“NUKE TALIBAN DRUG TRAFFICKING TERRORISTS”,
“USSCOLE+ EMBASSIES+WTC+ PENTAGON+PA =OSAMA”,
“BUY GUNS+SUVS+DEFENSE STOCKS INVEST
“GREENPEACE=OSAMA MONEY LAUNDERING FRONT”.
Another case of misuse concerned the posting of 'missing
person' announcements by family or friends on Web surfaces not intended to
support this user action. Although less offensive than the
previous example, these cases similarly involved the posting of expression
inappropriate to the context. For
example, the following text appeared on the message boards of the
Our prayers go out to
the victims and their families. We must come together as a nation to defend our
freedom. We MUST pray for our leaders at this time. They need wisdom and
guidance in what they are preparing to do. If you have any information on
Daphne Pouletsos of
The message conveys the desperation of a family seeking loved ones; it is nonetheless out of place in the context of the message board on which it was posted.
Interestingly absent from post-September 11 online expression, but prevalent in Shuchter and Zisook’s (1993) multi-dimensional description of grief are elements of guilt among the living. Perhaps this is one emotional element that is absent from crises occurring on a communal scale, or when individuals are further removed from the situation. Also of interest is the frequency of both religious/spiritual and patriotic expression, neither of which has received much attention in earlier studies.
One potential role for the Internet in post-crisis coping is its service in establishing online social support networks or communities based on a common interest. As Pennebaker and Harber (1993) note in their model for collective coping, social inhibitions, arising in the second to third week after a crisis, tended to limit the outlets for expression. They found that while people reported a desire to talk about the event, they did not want to listen to others’ experiences of the crisis. This has two different implications. First, considering the therapeutic effects of talking about a crisis (Cohen, 2001; Taylor & Fraser, 1980, as cited in Raphael, 1983), a sharp decline in available listeners during a time when people still have a need to talk about the event could interfere with the recovery process. Second, while it may be therapeutic to express oneself, the experience of listening may evoke stress in the listener, making avoidance of discussion regarding a crisis a form of self-defense against further emotional distress (Pennebaker & Harber, 1993). This may explain the inhibition that appears in social interactions leading to a suppression of conversations about the traumatic event. By offering a place for people to express themselves without simultaneously being exposed to either the stress of listening to another person or risking the possibility of social censure, the Internet may facilitate the grieving or coping process. Because users are in control of the extent to which they read and engage with others’ expression they have the ability to limit their exposure to stress. And in a study of people coping with loss due to suicide, Hollander (2001) found that surviving family and friends did turn to online social support networks as a place for expression, due to a perception that grieving was unwelcome in their external social circles.
If people experiencing the loss of a family member or friend feel all alone or isolated in their grief, is it also possible to feel alone when the crisis affects an entire community, perhaps even an entire nation? While opportunities to discuss collective experiences of a crisis may be widely available in cities and metropolitan areas, where there is also professional counseling help and a large number of other survivors with whom to share stories, this type of social support may be rare in outlying areas. For people in areas geographically distant from a crisis, unlike traditional broadcast media, the Internet may provide a connection with a larger community through which people can discuss their own mediated experiences of the crisis. In addition, Rainie and Kalsnes (2001) found that people who used the Internet during 9/11 were also more likely to participate in other community events such as attending vigils, religious or memorial services, and donating blood. It is possible that those individuals who sought the opportunity to express themselves online represent a segment of the population, a vocal minority perhaps, that needs or desires a sense of connection to a larger social network. While online communities may be invisible, their utility as an outlet for personal expression is highly visible. Thus, perhaps it is the ability to join a community removed from the confines of one's traditional social networks that allows for frank discussions of death and loss and where people can make sense of the tragedy that evokes such strong reactions in the first place (Hollander, 2001).
The purpose of this essay has been to contribute to knowledge about online, public expression in the wake of an international disaster. Our findings show that the Internet served as a site and surface for citizens around the world to post their personal expression and engage with the writing of others. It is this unique interactive capability of the Internet that separates it from traditional media. Whereas television, newspapers, and radio may increase the segment of the public who are informed of and perhaps touched by a crisis, the Internet further supports the subsequent needs of the public in coping with the tragedy by facilitating shared personal expression and emotional support from within the larger online community.
The contributions of the Web to facilitation of individual or collective mourning and bereavement through personal expression may be found in the variety of expression we observed. Overall, the forms of expression produced in response to the September 11 attacks both support and diverge from expectations for individuals coping with traumatic stress in their lives based on the studies of public mourning cited previously, as well as with Pennebaker and Harber's (1993) stage model of collective coping. For example, there seems to be strong evidence of expression related to 'making sense' of the attacks, which Raphael (1983) notes may accompany unexpected trauma or sudden loss for which there is no ready explanation. In both cases, however, the expression observed on the Web extends beyond the boundaries of previous expectations. The relative anonymity and protection from social censure afforded to Internet authors, relative to face-to-face interactions, coupled with the ability of the Internet to connect like-minded but geographically distant groups of people may account for the larger variety of expression found online. To some extent, this may in fact represent a more realistic sample of the emotional response to a crisis than found in earlier research.
analyzing actual online expression rather than collecting self-reports of
expression, we removed the potential for respondent bias by delimiting
boundaries on potential subjects' responses that can impinge on survey or
interview methods. Furthermore, previous
studies have suffered from a time lag between the actual disaster and the
collection of data on people’s response to the event, thus introducing the
possibility of error through stimulated recall exercises. We were able to
overcome this difficulty by examining actual expression as it appeared on the
Internet simultaneously with the impact of the first airplane in
We note that the September 11 attacks were a unique event in world history and that the expression generated in response to this event may not be representative of how people in other crisis contexts would respond. We suggest that future studies might further explore the extent to which online expression can be considered an extension of the type of dialogue that takes place in a conversation. It would also be fruitful to analyze the extent to which online expression mimics dyadic conversations concerning collective experiences of trauma or crisis.
The Web sites analyzed in this study reveal that Internet users view the Web as far more than a tool for just retrieving or even exchanging information. The Web has become a realm for creating and seeking personal expression of all kinds. It contains the full spectrum of emotive action, manifested in art and memorials, texts and images. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Web was a commons for human expression.
*Authors' Note: An earlier version of this article was presented at the “Criticism and Social Action: Rhetorical Dimensions of Electronic Texts” conference at the University of Washington, April 25th-26th, 2003.
 Recently, some studies have examined how individuals diagnosed with terminal illnesses or experiencing the traumatic loss of a spouse or child cope express themselves in online environments. Although similar in nature, their utility for comparison with September 11th is limited.
 It was not possible to ascertain the nationalities of contributors to these sites. There were Web sites in other languages with similar expression-related activities that were developing simultaneously that were not included in this study.
 All examples are quoted as they appeared online with grammatical and spelling errors preserved.
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