In a tasteful display of using social media to commemorate a tragedy, the Washington Post’s #wherewereyou hashtag made its way around the Twitter-verse this weekend to get users to share where they were on September 11th, 2001. The semantics of the tag itself and the poignancy of the event that is still fresh in many American’s memories no doubt contributed to the outpouring of responses originating from the Washington Post’s Twitter page, but Nieman Journalism Lab points out that the very nature of digital media has caused the hashtag to shift in meaning and begin documenting other sentiments as well. The call for 9/11 memories on Twitter reflects not only the nation on a day of mourning and remembrance, but also the way digital media is both perpetuating and changing history.
The hashtag was an experiment in reaching out, inclusiveness, and retaining a historical memory of an event etched into the minds of many Americans and people around the world. The Washington Post published a blog post and tweeted on September 10th, asking its readers to share where they were when they first heard about the attack. The newspaper asked that recollections be collected together using the hashtag #wherewereyou. This resulted in hundreds of responses, and saw #wherewereyou rocket to a trending topic in the DC area and eventually around the world.
This is a solid example of the digital nature of social media being used to maintain historical records. All of the people responding to the call to post their memory of September 11th are now part of a digital archive of reactions to a worldwide event. Twitter has already struck a deal with the Library of Congress Archives to digitally preserve all tweets occurring publicly on the network. This hashtag is a way to organize the obviously overwhelming data into comprehensible, historically-relevant snapshots.
Nieman Journalism Lab examines this hashtag experiment, and notes that:
Hashtags mean what their users decide they mean; they’re entirely dependent on context. They are context. And a funny thing happened with this one: After the initial burst of 9/11-related answers…the tag lost some of its initial meaning. Tweets like “Where were you when you first heard Glenn Beck exploit 9/11?” and, more commonly, “I was always there when you needed me, #wherewereyou when I was in need of you?” began to pop up in the #wherewereyou stream.
And, as they also point out, if you watched a live stream of #wherewereyou now (like the one on the Washington Post’s blog), you likely wouldn’t be able to discern what the original intention of the tag was.
The September 11th hashtag experiment shows just how eager people are to join in a conversation and share their stories, something which social media is particularly adept at enabling. But it also illustrates the malleability of social and digital media. Because things often happen in real time, meanings overlap and change as time goes by. Hashtags are taken over, Facebook fan page comments move from vitriol to vindication, as people struggle to keep up with in an information society.