Explore 9/11 iPhone App Review

Reviewed by Christo de Klerk

Explore 9/11 is a free iPhone app commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the private non-profit responsible for the management and redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in New York City.1 It is a popular mobile app. Though only launched on August 26th, the app was downloaded a 100 000 times by September 10th.2

The foundation describes the mobile app as “a guide to understanding 9/11 through the eyes of those who witnessed the events.” It is among a set of sites for remembrance that include the preview exhibition at 20 Vesey St and the “Make History” website, both focused on aggregating photos, stories, and objects associated with the September 11 attacks. The app was built by Local Projects, a media design firm responsible for the Museum’s “Make History” website and a lead designer for on site exhibitions.

911 Explorer App

Users of the iPhone app are presented with a simple three button screen upon start-up: Tour, Explore, Timeline. The tour is a Google Maps based guide around the World Trade Center site. There are seven stops along the way along presented upon the familiar interface. Each stop is noted with clear blue pins, connected by lines on the map, and accompanied by written walking instructions. At each stop, the user is presented with a slide show of photos accompanied by the narrated story of a survivor, witness, or rescue officer. Together with the photos, the story recreates an experience or vision of events that took place where the user stands. The seven short stories present a range of experiences by taking place at different points along the circumference of the site and on different points of the timeline along the course of the tragedy. The Timeline is part of a unifying theme across all three platforms. It is presented within the app as a scrollable list that begins with “Before 9/11” and ends with “Years After 9/11”. Clicking through an entry in the timeline draws up a description of the event and a link to related photos. The photos on the app are part of the Explore section. Here the photos are placed upon the map and are represented as double sided cards with a title, description, and timeline tags on the back. The photos can be browsed either pinned to the map and within proximity of the user or they can be viewed against a camera overlay in the “AR” mode of the app.

Timeline and Explore Functions
Timeline and Explore Functions

Explore 9/11 reveals a formal materiality experienced as a materiality of proximities. The original experience is not recorded to the network, but rather a reconstruction. The photos and stories told were taken and experienced right here, we might say. While the user can upload photos to a place on the map, the photo with its zoom setting, its GPS reading perhaps a few feet off, or pinned on the map to an object rather than to the location where it was taken means place is seldom exact. Likewise for the viewer, the reading is an experience of proximity. Not experienced as a reading from a server, but a reading right here. This happened right here, we might say. But we’re not standing exactly where the story was told, this is not the exact place of the photo, the scene not perceived through the same lens or set of eyes. Where content on the computer screen “present a premediated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality”,3 locative media might propagate the opposite: an illusion of materiality, that the content really is here.

The only introduction to the first person narratives is a title screen introducing each individual by their name and their location within the story. The user hears these voices while standing around the World Trade site amid the din of construction, traffic, and 9/11 memorabilia hawkers. As Ariel Kaminer of the New York Times describes it, “instead of reading quotations inscribed in granite, you are listening as someone whispers them in your ear while you cradle the phone and strain to hear more.”4 The result is “much more personal, and therefore much more powerful” she says. Jeremy Hight has worked for the past decade on locative media projects and is particularly concerned with what he calls narrative archaeology, an emerging method of reading and writing stories “into this world, the physical world”.5 The Explore 9/11 user may experience this as they listen to the storyteller and align photos from the slideshow to their surroundings. The experience matching Hight’s measure of an effective locative media presentation: that “narratives are read by voice actors and appear only as sound in headphones upon activation not only enhances characterization and tone through speech pattern, cadence and inflection, but creates a sense that every space is agitated (alive with unseen history, stories, layers). The city is to be read and publication becomes one of the streets, zeroes and ones in code, and in the air.”6

The stories in the air are stored in a database. Local Projects designed the website and the app to share a database. This means significant flexibility for presenting and visualizing the content that is uploaded by users or the museum. On “Make History” uploads are presented on Google Maps or by overlaying it on a Google Streetview. On the app, uploads are made available under the Explore and Timeline tabs, organized by the content’s GPS and timeline specific tags.

It also means significant potential to aggregate content. Anyone can upload content at the website or at the Memorial Preview Site’s recording booth. Again, the idea of uploading encodes in the content a material sense of inscription to place, certainly not a database. Though for Local Projects this online database driven exhibition is a realization that “it takes thousands of people to make history.”7 The exhibition then is a virtualization of democratic ideals upon the substratum an urban landscape.

There are challenges in concluding that the open endedness of the combined web and app exhibition really works. Separating the guided tour from the user submitted content does work. The guided tour is simple, clear, and effective. That anyone can submit and add material certainly increases the breadth of the collection, but the forensic exactitude of the content ought to limit their inclusion on the live database. Methods for limiting clutter or information overload will depend on the scale of a project. The primary method for managing user submitted content is through a set taxonomy. All content can be tagged with the strictly defined, timeline oriented tags. However, this still leads to tagging that may be incomprehensible to most users and thereby decrease the usefulness of elements of the exhibit.

For a project as large as the 9/11 Memorial I would suggest a staging database where content can be evaluated for material exactitude and historical relevance. This could be done publicly on a wiki-like collaboration platform or it could be done privately with a clearly stated editorial policy. Furthermore, the database is not suitable to user submission of artifacts, such as hand made boards, sculptures, art, found objects, or collages. There are photos as documentary evidence of these artifacts, but no high quality captures. Instead these may be better suited to the on site museum or a different approach to an online exhibition.

Not everything fits
perhaps more suitable for another kind of exhibit?

“Artifacts stabilize experience of the past,” wrote Thomas Schlereth.8 At the site of the World Trade Center, an app is part of that stabilizing experience. Though the voices, stories, and photos are heard and seen in the air and on the landscape, they are in a database, on hard drives, transmitted from elsewhere over telecommunication infrastructure in response to a request from a location sharing media device. The stabilizing artifact is somewhere between the landscape and the infrastructure. Writing on the effect of various World War 1 memorials, historian J Winters wrote of the Cenotaph in the city of London: “It is a form on which anyone could inscribe his or her own thoughts, reveries, sadnesses. It became a place of pilgrimage, and managed to transform the commemorative landscape by making all of ‘official’ London into an imagined cemetery.”9 Locative media may fundamentally change our experience of digital media, and we may mistake the materiality of digital media for its projections. However, the challenge will be to reconcile that imperative with the burden of memory, loss, and grief, that realization that indeed, every space is agitated and alive with unseen history, stories, layers.

1 “Explore 9/11 for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store.” Apple iTunes, n.d. http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/explore-9-11/id387986451?mt=8.

2 Valentino-DeVries, Jennifer. “App Watch: September 11 Memorial Museum Looks at 9/11 Through Pictures, Stories – Digits – WSJ,” September 10, 2010. http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/09/10/app-watch-museum-looks-at-911-through-photos-stories/.

3 Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: new media and the forensic imagination. MIT Press, 2008., p. 135.

4 Kaminer, Ariel. “In Your Palm, Memories of Horror and Valor.” The New York Times, September 10, 2010, sec. N.Y. / Region. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/12/nyregion/12critic.html.

5 Hight, Jeremy. “Jeremy Hight: Narrative Archaeology.” Streetnotes, Summer 2003. http://www.xcp.bfn.org/hight.html.

6 Hight, Jeremy. “TEXT: Narrative Archaeology: reading the landscape, by Jeremy Hight | newmediafix.net,” n.d. http://newmediafix.net/daily/?p=638.

7 Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, “App Watch: September 11 Memorial Museum”.

8 Thomas J. Schlereth, “Material Culture and Cultural Research” In Thomas J. Schlereth, Ed., Material Culture: A Research Guide (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1985): p. 10.

9 Winter, Jay. Sites of memory, sites of mourning: the Great War in European cultural history. Cambridge University Press, 1998. p. 104.

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