A virtual learning community’s reaction to the attack on the World Trade Centre – off task behaviour in on-line communities

Johannes Cronjé and Seugnet Blignaut

University of Pretoria

On 11 September 2001 the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were destroyed. The word-wide reaction to this was well documented and is well known. This article traces the response it generated in an international virtual learning community.

ITFORUM is an electronic list server where people from around the world discuss theories, research, new paradigms, and practices in the field of Instructional Technology. The list is open to anyone interested in instructional technology. Specific discussions are conducted throughout the year. Leaders in the field are invited to write a short paper or essay that is posted on the list prior to discussion. This guest discussant remains available electronically on the list for a period of one week to discuss, debate, or answer questions from subscribers. The list moderator coordinates and facilitates discussions and handles the day-to-day management of the list. The discussions generally represent honest hallway discussions between colleagues after a good presentation rather than hardcore academic rhetoric. On the day the research started 1693 people were enrolled to the list.

The shock of the events of September 11 pushed aside all usual academic discussion on the list for three days. In a sense the virtual learning community that had been created to discuss instructional technology, was taken over from inside by a sub-community dedicated to making sense of what had happened in the world.

The question is: how does a strong, stable on-line community respond to an off-task disaster?



Kowch and Schwier (1997) define learning communities as "collections of

individuals who are bound together by natural will and a set of shared ideas and ideals". They refine this definition further by describing the nature of the individuals and their activities as "autonomous, independent individuals engaged by

influencing each other within a learning process" (Kowch and Schwier 1997). A virtual learning community would be identified because "Relationships occur via many non-traditional (electronic) or non-mediated language discourse(s) within environments" (Kowch and Schwier 1997). It is clear that ITForum conforms in every way to this definition.

The life and times of virtual learning communities

The "environment" in which ITForum functions is an electronic mailing list, driven by "Listserv" software. As such it can be expected to follow the life cycle humorously described by Nagel (1996) and tabulated below

Table 1 The Natural Life Cycle of Mailing Lists (Tabulated from Nagel, 1996)

  1. Initial enthusiasm

people introduce themselves, and gush a lot about how wonderful it is to find kindred souls

  • Evangelism
  • people moan about how few folks are posting to the list, and brainstorm recruitment strategies

  • Growth
  • more and more people join, more and more lengthy threads develop, occasional off-topic threads pop up

  • Community
  • lots of threads, some more relevant than others; lots of information and advice is exchanged; experts help other experts as well as less experienced colleagues; friendships develop; people tease each other, newcomers are welcomed with generosity and patience; everyone -- novice and expert alike -- feels comfortable asking questions, suggesting answers, and sharing opinions

  • Discomfort with diversity
  • the number of messages increases dramatically; not every thread is fascinating to every reader; people start complaining about the signal-to-noise ratio; person 1 threatens to quit if *other* people don't limit discussion to person 1's pet topic; person 2 agrees with person 1; person 3 tells 1 & 2 to lighten up; more bandwidth is wasted complaining about off-topic threads than is used for the threads themselves; everyone gets annoyed

    6 a Smug complacency and stagnation



    the purists flame everyone who asks an 'old' question or responds with humor to a serious post; novices are rebuffed; traffic drops to a level of a few minor issues; all interesting discussions happen by private email and are limited to a few participants; the purists spend lots of time self-righteously congratulating each other on keeping off-topic threads off the list

    6 b Maturity

    a few people quit; the rest of the participants stay near stage 4, with stage 5 popping up briefly every few weeks; many people wear out their second or third 'delete' key, but the list lives contentedly ever after

    The ITForum mailing list having been started in 1994, clearly falls into the category of "Maturity", and is likely to display the characteristics of virtual learning communities as described by Kowch and Schwier (1997).

    In presenting suggestions for sustaining a virtual community, Cothrel and Williams (1999) stress the importance of off-task activities. They also urge mentors of such lists to "resist the urge to control" (1999:57). To do this they should "consciously allow social interaction and non-business exchanges" (1999:57).

    Types of virtual community

    Kowch and Schwier (1997) identify four types of virtual learning community. Those based on relationships, common place, common mindsets and common memory. It would seem that ITForum is a hybrid of these communities, where relationships, common place, and mindset tend to dominate its coherence, and common memory plays a supporting role.

    Table 2: Typology of virtual communities (Tabulated from Kowch and Schwier, 1997)


    A community built on relationships promotes special kinds of connections among people, interconnections that result in a peculiar harmony similar to that found in families or collections of people. These connections might be based on a shared concern, issue or learning problem, but in each instance, the emphasis is on the relationships built among participants. Issues of commitment, trust and values are inherent in any relationships that emerge in the community.

    Common Place

    Individuals in this type of community enjoy a common habitat or locale. This sharing of place with others can offer a sense of security, commonality, and heritage. The place need not be physical, however, and in virtual communities, places are by definition not physical. People from several countries gather in one virtual place, e.g. the Internet, as easily as people can gather for a meeting in a school building (perhaps easier). Nevertheless, the location can be as real as the imagination and technology allow. The Internet houses thousands of virtual storefronts, for example, each of which exists metaphorically as a place.

    Common Mindsets

    Communities of mind reinforce people's commitment to other people, to common goals, shared values and shared conceptions of being and doing. This can be as trivial as a shared interest in wine making, or as profound as a shared search for truth in scripture. The two most distinguishable features of a community of mind are sharing and ideas, however they may be expressed interpersonally or technologically.

    Examples of a learning community of mind are often found in academic communities, where researchers come together to grapple with a shared research issue or problem. But these types of community, as with other types, are not always positive or pro-social.

    Common Memories

    A virtual learning community of memory is based on a shared past or a common sense of history. This community connects people who might otherwise be alone, and also provides a focal point for interpreting and understanding commonly experienced events, e.g. the Holocaust survivors network on the Internet.

    The characteristics of virtual communities

    According to Kowch and Schwier (1997) a learning community "has a will to do what is 'right' and 'good' in accordance with group-set values and ethical principles, for example, such as to 'do no harm' to each other". In order for this goal to be achieved, communities share the characteristics of negotiation, intimacy, commitment, and engagement. A summary of Kowch and Schwier's (1997) explanation of these terms appears in the following table.

    Table 3: Characteristics of Virtual Learning Communities (Tabulated from Kowch and Schwier, 1997)




    While virtual communities are often built around central themes, ideas or purposes, the organizing principles are not externally imposed. Participants construct purposes, intentions and the protocol for interaction. Systems allow open and unrestricted access based on individual interests and needs.


    Participants can achieve personally gratifying levels of intimacy with other participants, and can select the level of intimacy appropriate for any negotiated relationship with another participant. Anonymity is possible, but as the sense of community develops, it is unlikely that a participant would choose to remain anonymous.


    The quality of participation depends on individual and shared commitment or relevance of the substance of the community. Commitment depends on shared values in the community, where participation represents an ethical choice among those who share goals or needs. The valence of the commitment need only be strong enough to maintain participation in the group, but stronger commitment generally leads to the development of stronger communities.


    Participants interact with each other and have the capacity to conduct discourse freely and meaningfully. In order to fit our definition, engagement must have immediacy; not be significantly delayed in time or space. Interaction must be effervescent, and based on influence among participants rather than power relationships.

    The story unfolds

    This section describes the course of the discussion as it developed over a period of three days. The key phrases of a number of postings are extracted to provide a synopsis of the progression, rather than to produce a comprehensive overview of the discussion. The names of the correspondents have been removed deliberately. Times have been converted to GMT to allow uniformity of reference.

    6 hours and 12 minutes after incident the first messages relating to it appears:

    Deepest Sympathies to all the injured or who have lost loved ones in this horrible tragedy!! I believe I speak for all in saying you are in our prayers.

    Exactly 1 hour later came the first reply. This was also the first message outside the USA.:

    Yes, greetings and deepest sympathies from the many Irish men and women who spent the summer at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

    Half and hour later the 3rd message brings the first misinterpretation:

    I hate to seem stupid to a group I don't know, but oh god, has something happened in Ireland too, besides NYC, Washington D.C. etc? (other than the Irish school kids last week?)

    After another offer of sympathy, this time from Brazil, a student form Duquesne University in Pittsburgh replies renewing acquaintance and thanking the Irish for keeping us in your thoughts

    This participant also presents the first parenthetical comment:

    No doubt this date (9-11, or 911 -- isn't that interesting?) will live in infamy regarding the history of this country.

    This is followed by sympathy and a word of caution form South Africa:

    I am so sorry. My thoughts are with the American people. May you have strength. May you act wisely in considering what actions to take.

    The shortest message follows seven minutes later and simply adds:


    The messages take on a more personal tone:

    My young son woke me at about 5.45 saying "Mummy something terrible has happened to the world - it's on all the TV channels." I spent the next hour watching with him and talking to him, but as he got dressed for school he said, "I'm scared about going to school" This is from our beautiful, safe homes in Australia. We cannot begin to comprehend your dismay, your heartbreak, your disbelief.

    And then it becomes didactic

    May God, Buddha, Allah or whoever you may pray to, bless you, your families and your nation. Before you go to sleep tonight, please tell you families how much you love them. It may be your only chance.

    At 03:36 GMT on 12 September, almost fifteen hours after the incident, an announcement is made of a separate discussion group that has been set up

    For educators to discuss Sept. 11 and its continuing events. It's for anyone who wants to talk, but primarily I have in mind teachers and administrators who need to discuss the issues raised by this set of circumstances with students.

    The religious theme that was introduced with the blessing, now continues with a message that includes this caution:

    Whatever the circumstances, we need to remember that God is still on His throne. Tragedy is never an act of God.

    A contributor from Ankara, Turkey, is the first to put an adjective to the event, by referring to

    Yesterday’s brutal act of terror.

    The next member takes an introspective turn:

    BUT I want to hear people ask WHY these things happen. What pressures, atrocities, or horrors could move someone to do something like this anywhere? What does living with this kind of terrorism and fear do to someone who sees this kind of thing on an almost daily basis? And what does it mean to individuals if they believe the perpetrators of that fear is a global superpower?

    The same correspondent also asks about the way forward:

    How we address this attack and how we attempt to resolve it can be done with hate or with a sincere attempt to understand and reconcile. My feelings are somewhere between these two.

    We then return to the religious theme. This time with a message of about 1700 words, the theme of which is that violence begets violence. Under the subject heading "Hope for healing" the writer quotes extensively from Luke 6:27-49:

    But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also … If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even `sinners' love those who love them … Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

    The quotation then takes an interesting turn:

    I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.’ Amazing how relevant that parable is to what has just happened here... "it collapsed and its destruction was complete."

    This writer uses the ironic twist that it is the American’ whose "house" collapsed and continues the theme of asking why it happened by stating

    We have been attacked by those who feel they have been attacked *BY US*. We need to stop the rush to retaliation and ask ourselves *honestly* what our contribution to this situation was.

    She continues to hope that

    Peace, Love and Healing will ultimately rule the day.

    Then she comments on a cycle of violence.

    We have been attacked by those who feel they have been attacked *by us*. We need to stop the rush to retaliation and ask ourselves *honestly* what our contribution to this situation was.

    In a way this long message, intended to calm the waters, sets the cat among the pigeons. It is countered immediately by a correspondent who takes a more patriotic stand:

    If you want to do something for yourself, for the people of the by God United States of America and for the world, go out, buy an American flag, and fly it proudly.

    A correspondent from Australia mentions that a resolution had been passed by the US senate to support a war against terrorism, and that

    Consequently, nations that have harbored terrorists are very likely to find themselves isolated and probably punished.

    At 12:20 GMT on 13 September, under the heading of "Sanity and Wisdom" a correspondent expresses

    great relief to read the thoughtful and sober responses articulated by people of this listserv.

    He continues by expressing concern

    about the rhetoric already emerging from our leaders. When they speak of "justice" I fear that I hear "revenge".

    Still under the heading of "Sanity and wisdom" follows this cautionary statement:

    One thing is for certain, the innocent are not done dying. Any reprisal will call more innocent people.

    Ironically, the heading, "Sanity and wisdom", becomes the banner-head of a highly emotional debate. The next correspondent finds it

    very sad that you may equate patriotism with bigotry and racism ... I plan to "fly the flag" not because I've been blindly led by the politicians use of the media, because I have proudly watched people (Americans) repeatedly enter life threatening conditions to save others...

    The theme of innocent people being killed in the crossfire is picked up again:

    We would not *target* innocent people, certainly, but we would write them off as "collateral damage" if they were killed in the process of targeting those we believe to be guilty ... and thus the cycle is perpetuated.

    Similar themes are addressed under the heading "Attack on America", by a correspondent who warns that

    Violence only begets violence and any hasty, militant actions will come back to haunt us.

    Once again, under the heading of "Sanity and Wisdom" a Canadian "Tribute to the United States" is cross posted from another list. Some discussion follows about both the validity and age of this document.

    The discussion then returns to the "justice/revenge" theme:

    when I hear our leaders call for "justice", I do not hear a call for "revenge", but a call to find those who have committed such an act against innocent civilians in our country, and to insure that they can never do it again.

    A quarter of an hour later the list moderator intervenes with "A note about political discussions on ITForum" in which he expresses the

    hope that everyone ... will feel free to post their thoughts and feelings on the list

    but he asks

    everyone to avoid posting overtly political messages on the list. It's difficult to prevent political discussions from degenerating into shouting matches even in tranquil times...

    This pretty much ends the discussion, except for a response to this email that urges participants to

    try and reach over the emotions, and deal with what is going on in this forum. The situation we are in has been termed a "war of disruption". In other words, the greatest victory for the perpetrators in terms of impact is wringing every minute of disruption out of the acts that took place. Every minute that we spend now that is taken away from what we were doing before the attack is a minute that contributes to the terrorist victory...

    Thus ends roughly 32 hours worth of "disruption" of the regular discussions in a virtual community.


    A cursory glance over the synopsis of messages presented above confirms the nature of ITForum as a virtual learning community consisting of "autonomous, independent individuals engaged by influencing each other" (Kowch and Schwier 1997).

    The age of the community places it in the stage 6b (Maturity) of Nagel's life cycle. This is supported by the fact that there are clear indications of stage 4 (Community) activities with a number of threads, and much exchange of information and advice, as well as instances of stage 5 (Discomfort with diversity) with some fundamental disagreement. Interestingly the nature of the shock was so great that the usual business of the list was simply put aside. Also because of the sheer size of the human tragedy, no trace of humour or teasing can be found.

    In terms of the flow of the discussion, a clear pattern emerges, from sympathy and bewilderment, through reflection and a search for meaning, to debate about future action. Also significant is a clear progression from unanimity to diversity of opinion. Initially everyone agrees on the shock and horror of the situation. As the discussion progresses, however, lively debate occurs on the interpretation of the event and on further actions, until the moderator finds it necessary to intervene.

    An initial listing of message headings shows how the attack on the World Trade Center dominated the discussion.

    Table 4: Discussion topics


    Topics of the day*

    Number of postings

    11, 12 September

    Synchronous Web-based Training Evaluations

    Elements of eLearning

    Teaching Technology Support Conference – Announcement

    Deepest Sympathies

    Bewilderment and Sympathy

    Group to Discuss Sept.11 for educators


    12,13 September


    Deepest Sympathies

    Hope for Healing? (was: Deepest Sympathies)

    Section V: structure of cosa The.

    Bewilderment and Sympathy

    Elements of eLearning


    13,14 September

    Sanity and Wisdom

    Attack on America

    A note about political messages on ITFORUM

    Self-Instruction Print

    Canadian "Stand Up" piece


    ITForum as a virtual learning community

    As a virtual community dedicated to the discussion of one subject, instructional technology, it would seem that the basis of this community would be a common mindset. The community's reaction to this off-task event, however, shows that it has strong reliance on relationships. The role of place, both geographical and metaphorical cannot be denied, while common memory plays a small part in its coherence.


    Relationships result in harmony, rather than unity. This means that members of the community do not think the same, but they have a common underlying value system. If this is threatened, the community could collapse.

    In this case, when the discussion went beyond the common value system, the moderator chose to call for some kind of order.

    Common Place

    Two "places" come to mind here, geographical and metaphorical. Geographically, the list represents Americans, and non-Americans. At the same time the list also defined their geographical position as one world. Metaphorically the discussion list is seen as an appropriate (or inappropriate) "place" for discussion.

    Interestingly enough, the common place is defined initially as America, then as the world, then again as America, and then as the discussion list. The community seems to rally together in support of the Americans, then realise that it is a worldwide phenomenon. The Americans then continue the discussion after the well-wishers have departed, and finally, a member speaking for the list as a unit ("the body") rejects the whole subject as off-topic.

    Common mindsets

    The commonality of mind that shows throughout all the messages discussed thus far show the role of a common mindset (or the lack of it) in the functioning of this community.

    The mindset of shock and dismay at the events is what unites the community, while the diverse mindset of the interpretation of the events, is what eventually destroys the discussion.

    Common history

    By virtue of the globalising effect of the Internet, and the effect of education on creating a common history, members of ITForum share a significant portion of history. Globally the history of the Second World War and of the American Civil war was identified as threads of common history. This became particularly evident in the more patriotic (American) postings, and in the discussion of the Canadian tribute to America.

    Although a common world history, and also a common American history permeates through the community, it is not the sense of past history that unites this community as much, in this instance, as the sense of history in the making.

    Functioning characteristics of ITForum

    In the following section various extracts of messages posted to ITForum are classified according to Kowch and Schwier's (1997) taxonomy as summarised in the beginning. On each set of extracts follows a comment relating the messages to the specific aspect of the virtual learning community.


    Negotiation involves the agreement of members of a community upon the purpose of the community, the intention of the actions of the community, and the protocols of interaction to be followed by participants.


    Three extracts clearly indicate the negotiation about the relationship between the usual activities of ITForum and the discussion of the World Trade Center incident.

    ITForum is a community of educators learning about Instructional Technology.

    However, they rephrase their purpose to include a discussion of current events., but somehow ignore the fact that Instructional Technology is mediating their very discussion.

    Eventually the moderator notices that the discussion has progressed beyond the purpose of the list.


    The intention of various messages are clarified to align them with the purpose of the discussion list:

    Various members relate the discussion to the purpose of the list, in order to focus the intention of their messages.

    One member recognises that this discussion, strictly speaking, is off topic and invites members to join a list set up specifically for this purpose.

    Clearly, however, the spirit of community in ITForum, prevails and the discussion continues.

    Protocol of interaction

    After the discussion degenerates to political mud-slinging, one member suggests a protocol for returning to the main purpose of the group.

    After three days there is the realisation that this discussion is not the main business of the community, and a protocol is recommended for terminating the discussion.


    Intimacy is characterised not only by the possibility of anonymity, but by the overwhelming openness. In this discussion there were no anonymous postings, in fact most participants wrote their names in full, not just relying on their automated email names. What was more striking, in terms of intimacy was the large degree of openness.

    What characterised the openness of members of the community was their willingness to share their concerns, their sorrows, and their beliefs, in spite of the physical distance. Also significant is the question of asking "Why" the willingness to recognise that possibility that we may be at fault, and the openness to criticism of such a point of view.


    Commitment relates to shared values and participation. What becomes clear here is that the sharing occurs in two directions. The non-US members share their sympathy, while the US members share their grief , shock and uncertainty.

    Shared Values


    The nature of the commitment here is shown in the fact that, in the middle phase of the discussion, the participants see themselves as one world community. Later, however, as the discussion centres around justice and retribution, the non-US members withdraw from the discussion.

    As the level of diversity of the messages increases, it would seem that the number of participants decreases, and the level of engagement drops.


    The asynchronous nature of this list did not seem to influence the immediacy or effervescence of the discussion. It became quite clear that discussions were based on intellectual discussion rather than power relationships.

    The diversity of responses, and the willingness to expose oneself to criticism, as well as to criticise, is a characteristic of ITForum as a mature learning community. This effervescence is adopted naturally in the course of this (essentially off-task) discussion.


    ITForum is a mature, growing on-line virtual learning community. It has a long tradition of rigorous debate around academic issues. It also has a convention of off-topic discussion between formal discussions of posted papers.

    It is, therefore, not surprising that an off-topic discussion such as this one could take place.

    The progression of the discussion followed the same cycle as the conventional life of a discussion list, with a few initial statements, followed by strong debate, and ultimately being destroyed by a too strong diversity.

    Two significant factors that can be learnt from this discussion is the self-regulating nature of this community and the role of the moderator in intervening when the off-topic discussion threatens the integrity of the list as a whole.


    Cothrel, J. and Williams, R.L. (1999) On-line communities - helping them form and grow. Journal of knowledge management (3)1 (54-60).

    Kowch, E.G. and Schwier, R.A. (1997) Characteristics of technology-based virtual learning communities. [Online] http://www.usask.ca/education/coursework/802papers/communities/community.PDF

    Nagel, K. (1996). The Natural Life Cycle Of Mailing Lists. [Online] http://www.rider.edu/users/suler/psycyber/lifelist.html