Under attack on Tuesday, America went online.
By the millions we were desperate to fill in the spaces of the horrifying news that stunned a nation. For the majority of Americans online, however, all they got when they needed information the most was a lame hourglass cursor on their PCs or a spinning beach ball cursor on their Macs.
“This is the day the Internet grew up,” said Rob Batchelder, an Internet infrastructure specialist at the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn.
It also was the day that the Internet’s users discovered there is no Santa Claus.
In the wake of the tragedies in New York and Washington, D.C., the Web’s news sites were gridlocked in lockstep. MSNBC.com? Nothing. CNN.com? Nothing. Same for ABC.com, CBS.com, BBC.com and many others.
In what amounted to the first test of the hugely popular World Wide Web under wartime conditions, people found they had been sold a bill of goods when the likes of Bill Gates had pledged a future of perpetual, always-on “information at your fingertips.”
Ironically, on the very day that AOL Time Warner Inc. announced that America Online had added its 31 millionth customer, hardly any AOL users had the information they craved at their fingertips.
Batchelder recalled how he instantly turned to the Web as the television brought the first news of something terribly wrong. His wife, Rosemary, was staying in a hotel room on the 27th floor of New York’s Rockefeller Center and he was concerned.
He grabbed the phone to call her and got a wailing beeper and a recorded voice saying all phones were out. His cellphone was silent as well.
As a man whose core expertise is the infrastructure of the Internet, Batchelder furiously typed in the addresses of Web news site after Web news site with very little luck. Most didn’t come on at all; the others took forever to load.
A spokesman at CBS Marketwatch estimated his news site reached its saturation point as it tried to feed live video and audio to a paltry 5,200 customers. Uncounted millions of others like Batchelder got nothing more than a dead cursor.
So Batchelder fired off an ordinary e-mail and got a most welcome reply from Rosemary.
She was shaken. Looking out her window she had witnessed the huge passenger jet slam into the World Trade Center. As she tried to tell her husband more details their e-mail account froze up as well.
So they moved to instant messaging, using software from America Online and Microsoft to chat in a small window in real time on their respective computers.
“At that old low bandwidth we finally got the Internet to deliver for us,” he said.
Instant messaging uses far less bandwidth than news sites with photographs, streaming video and audio feeds.
The lesson was obvious for Batchelder. It is a mighty small lesson to take out of an all but unthinkably gigantic tragedy but it is one that will serve us well the next time.
“Operators of Web sites offering news especially need to have a contingency plan just as corporations do for when disasters hit,” he said. “They need to stop all of the bells and whistles and just go back to text and a very few pictures when huge traffic hits.”
It requires just a tiny fraction of a high-speed line to carry simple text. A single color photograph posted on a Web site can take up more bandwidth than all the words in a Mary Higgins Clark novel.
Indeed, as the terrible day dragged on, many of the major Web news sites moved to low-bandwidth displays. CNN’s stark text-only page was a chilling example of what transpired Tuesday.
By day’s end the bandwidth crisis blessedly had passed. But it left huge numbers of people with one more bitter memory from a day that certainly will live into infamy.