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"I'd like to introduce you to Elle": four September 11ths

September 11, 2001

I was in Oxford, working for Daily Information. My dad actually came into the office to let me know that it had happened - I had been building a web app and had no idea. For the rest of the day I tried to reload news sites to learn more; the Guardian was the only one that consistently stayed up.

The terror of the event itself is obvious, but more than anything else, I remember being immediately hit by the overwhelming sadness of it. Thousands of people who had just gone to work that day, like we all had to, and were trapped in their office by something that had nothing to do with them. I remember waiting for the bus home that day, watching the faces in all the cars and buses that passed me almost in slow motion, thinking that it could have been any of us. I wondered what their lives were like; who they were going home to see. Each face was at once unknowable and subject to the same shared experiences we all have.

I was the only American among my friends, and so I was less distanced from it than them. I remember waiting to hear from my cousin who had been on the New York subway at the time. I'm kind of a stealth American (no accent), so nobody guarded what they said around me. They definitely had a different take, and among them, as well as more widely, there was a sense of "America deserved this". It's hard to accurately describe the anti-American resentment that still pervades liberal Britain, but it was very ugly that day. On Livejournal, someone I followed (and knew in real life) posted: "Burn, America, burn".

One thing I agreed with them on was that we couldn't be sure what the President would do. America had elected a wildcard, who had previously held the record for number of state executions. It seemed clear that he would declare war, and potentially use this as an excuse to erode freedoms and turn America into a different kind of country; we had enough distance to be having those discussions on day one.

There were so many questions in the days that followed. Nobody really understood what had happened, and the official Bush explanations were not considered trustworthy. People brought up the American-led Chilean coup on September 11, 2003, when Salvador Allende had been deposed and killed; had it been symbolically related to that? Al Qaeda seemed like it had come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, the families of thousands of people were grieving.

 

September 11, 2002

I had an aisle to myself on the flight to California. The flight had been cheap, and it was obvious that if something were to happen on that day, it wouldn't be on a plane. Airport security at all levels was incredibly high; nobody could afford for there to be another attack.

I had graduated that summer. Earlier that year, my parents had moved back to California, mostly to take care of my grandmother. They were living in a small, agricultural town in the central valley, and I had decided to join them and help for a few months. This was what families do, I thought: when someone needs support, they band together and help them. Moreover, my Oma had brought her children through a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia, finding creative ways to keep them alive in horrifying circumstances. My dad is one of the youngest survivors of these camps, because of her. In turn, taking care of her at the end of her life was the right thing to do.

In contrast to the usual stereotype of California, the central valley is largely a conservative stronghold. When I first arrived, it was the kind of place where they only played country music on the radio and there was a flag on every house. Poorer communities are the ones that disproportionately fight our wars, and there was a collage in the local supermarket of everyone in the community who had joined the army and gone to fight in Afghanistan.

The central valley also has one of the largest Assyrian populations in the US, which would lead to some interesting perspectives a few years later, when the US invaded Iraq.

Our suspicions about Bush had proven to be correct, and the PATRIOT Act was in place. The implications seemed terrible, but these perspectives seemed to be strangely absent on the news. But there was the Internet, and conversations were happening all over the social web. (MetaFilter became my go-to place for intelligent, non-histrionic discussion.) I had started a comedy site the previous year, full of sarcastic personality tests and articles that were heavily influenced by both The Onion and Ben Brown's Uber.nu. Conversations were beginning to happen on the forum there, too.

I flew back to Edinburgh after Christmas, and found a job in educational technology at the university. Dave Tosh and I shared a tiny office, and bonded over talking about politics. It wasn't long before we had laid the groundwork for Elgg.

 

September 11, 2011

I was sitting at the kitchen table I'm sitting at now. It had been my turn to move to California to support a family-member; my mother was deeply ill and I had to be closer to her. I had left Elgg when she was diagnosed: there were disagreements about direction, and I was suddenly reminded how short and fragile life was.

My girlfriend had agreed that being here was important, and had come out with me, but had needed to go home for visa reasons. Eventually, after several more trips, she would decide that she didn't feel comfortable living in the US, or with marrying me. September was the first month I was by myself in my apartment, and I found myself without any friends, working remotely for latakoo in Austin.

Rather than settle in the valley, I had decided that the Bay Area was close enough. I didn't have a car, but you could BART to Dublin/Pleasanton, and be picked up from there. The valley itself had become more moderate over time, partially (I think) because of the influence of the new UC Merced campus, and the growth of CSU Stanislaus, closer to my parents. Certainly, you could hear more than country music on the radio, and the college radio station was both interesting and occasionally edgy.

I grew up in Oxford: a leafy university town just close enough to London. Maybe because of this, I picked Berkeley, another leafy university town, which is just close enough to San Francisco. (A train from Oxford to London takes 49 minutes; getting to San Francisco from Berkeley takes around 30.) My landlady is a Puerto Rican novelist who sometimes gave drum therapy sessions downstairs. If I look out through my kitchen window, I just see trees; the garden is dominated by a redwood that is just a little too close to the house. Squirrels, overweight from the nearby restaurants, often just sit and watch me, and I wonder what they're planning.

Yet, ask anyone who's just moved here what they notice first, and they'll bring up the homeless people. Inequality and social issues here are troublingly omnipresent. The American dream tells us that anyone can be anything, which means that whens someone doesn't make it, or they fall through the cracks, it must be their fault somehow. It's confronting to see people in so much pain every day, but not as confronting as the day you realize you're walking right by them without thinking about it.

Countless people told me that they wouldn't have moved to the US; not even if a parent was dying. I began to question whether I had done the right thing, but I also silently judged them. You wouldn't move to another country to support your family? I asked but didn't ask them. I'm sorry your family has so little love.

I don't know if that was fair, but it felt like an appropriate response to the lack of understanding.

 

September 11, 2014

"I'm Ben; this is my co-founder Erin; and I'd like to introduce you to Elle." Click. Cue story.

We were on stage at the Folsom Street Foundry in San Francisco, at the tail end of our journey through Matter. Over five months, we had taken a simple idea - that individuals and communities deserve to own their own spaces on the Internet - and used design thinking techniques to make it a more focused product that addressed a concrete need. Elle was a construct: a student we had invented to make our story more relatable and create a shared understanding.

After a long health journey, my mother had finally begun to feel better that spring. 2013 had been the most stressful year of my life, by a long way; mostly for her, but also for my whole family in a support role. I had also lost the relationship I had once hoped I'd have for the rest of my life, and the financial pressures of working for a startup and living in an expensive part of the world had often reared their head. Compared to that year, 2014 felt like I had found all my luck at once.

Through Matter, and before that, through the indie web community, I felt like I had communities of friends. There were people I could call on to grab a beer or some dinner, and I was grateful for that; the first year of being in the Bay Area had been lonely. The turning point had been at the first XOXO, which had been a reminder that individual creativity was not just a vital part of my life, but was somethign that could flourish on its own. I met lovely people there, and at the sequel the next year.

California had given me opportunities that I wouldn't have had anywhere else. It's also, by far, the most beautiful place I've ever lived. Standing on that stage, telling the world what we had built, I felt grateful. I still feel grateful now. I'm lucky as hell.

I miss everyone I left behind a great deal, but any time I want to, I can climb in a metal tube, sit for eleven hours while it shoots through the sky, and go see them. After all the health problems and startup adventures, I finally went back for three weeks last December. Air travel is odd: the reality you step out into supplants the reality you left. Suddenly, California felt like a dream, and Edinburgh and Oxford were immediate and there, like I had never left. The first thing I did was the first thing anyone would have done: I went to the pub with my friends.

But I could just as easily have walked out into Iran, or Israel, or Egypt, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. Those are all realities too, and all just a sky-ride in a metal tube away. The only difference is circumstance.

Just as so many people couldn't understand why I felt the need to move to America, we have the same cognitive distance from the people who live in those places. They're outside our immediate understanding, but they are living their own human realities - and our own reality is distant to them. The truth is, though, that we're all people, governed by the same base needs. I mean, of course we are.

My hope for the web has always been that getting on a plane wouldn't be necessary to understand each other more clearly. My hope for Known was that, in a small way, we could help bridge that distance, by giving everyone a voice that they control.

I think back to the people I watched from that bus stop often. You can zoom out from there, to think about all the people in a country, and then a region, and then the world. Each one an individual, at once unknowable and subject to the same shared experiences we all have. We are all connected, both by technology and by humanity. Understanding each other is how we will all progress together.