Using social media to commemorate September 11th

In recent decades, cultural sociologists have spent more time examining how people today create and experience newer memorials like the Vietnam Wall. But the nature of memorials changes quickly; here is a sociologist discussing how 9/11 is remembered on social media.

Brian Monahan, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania’s Marywood University, said social media helps Americans remember 9/11 in an anniversary year that is not a milestone 10th, 20th or 25th.

It also provides ways to remember events other than the structured process of scheduled memorials, said Monahan, who has studied coverage of 9/11. There was a proscribed way before of how to be solemn. The symbolism went through official channels.

“It was an informal process but it was structured,” he said.

Social media takes all the barriers away.

The conversation about 9/11 is also different now on Twitter and Facebook, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Monahan said.

“There was only one way to talk about 9/11 and that was tragedy,’ Monahan said. “But now it’s about core American values.”

Maybe we are headed toward a world where physical memorials simply don’t matter as much. Existing and new memorials may still attract a lot of visitors and certain locations, such as government centers or big cities, might still be expected to commission and maintain memorials. For example, the 9/11 Memorial in New York City which I had a chance to see in July, may still be important because it is rooted in a certain space. Here is one picture from the site (with the to-be-completed museum in the background):

The collective memory may be rooted in the World Trade Center site but it is now more diffuse. Public commemoration can now be done from anywhere. The 9/11 site can be experienced through websites and Google Street View. Videos can be watched online. People can share their memories from that day and where they were when they heard the news. Now participants can more widely share their memories and opinions rather than just relying on the “big narrative” to which memorials often point.

Perhaps these social media expressions were in part foretold by these new memorials themselves which encourage reflection and having viewers read their own interpretation into display. The classic example is the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. which was deliberately designed to move around controversial views of the war and allow people to reflect on the lives lost. See this classic 1991 piece in the American Journal of Sociology by Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz titled “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Commemorating a Difficult Past.” Social media simply furthers this process but also possibly gives interpretations from individuals the potential to reach wider audiences.

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