On a cold, snowy morning two years ago, a natural gas explosion tore through a block of downtown Bozeman, destroying several businesses and buildings and killing one woman.
Above and beyond the devastating real-world repercussions of the explosion, the blast also echoed through cyberspace, where scores of people devoted the better part of a week to chronicling the events online, on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
For a time that day, the hashtag #bozexplod was a trending topic on Twitter, meaning that Bozeman’s drama was generating as much interest as anything else in the world. People posted about the blast from their offices, their apartments and even from within a few yards of the blast site itself, relaying information, propagating rumor and adding new, useful info.
Meanwhile, photos were being posted to Flickr under the same tag and to other sites across the Web. People shared the breaking news with friends on Facebook. Videos were uploaded to YouTube. It was, effectively, a small-scale version of the big breaking news events that would come later on Twitter, such as the Iranian, Egyptian and Wisconsin protests (just to name a few).
But two years later, how much of that material remains online and accessible?
Search Twitter’s site for the hashtag #bozexplod and you’ll get no results. Use an advanced search to increase the time range from March 5, 2009, to the present day, and you’ll still find nothing. No record at all on Twitter’s website of the thousands of tweets set out that day. A void in the archive.
Twitter, it seems, can display only the most recent 3,200 tweets for any user. Consequently, finding tweets from two years ago from any number of users using the same hashtag is next to impossible. The company promises that it’s working on an archive search that will let users search all their tweets, but “this hasn’t yet reached the top of our list,” the company says on its FAQ page.
Google’s real time search engine can search the Twitter archive — the whole archive — but the feature is still experimental and it only goes back to February 2010. Google says that “soon you’ll be able to go back as far as the very first tweet on March 21, 2006,” but that was in a blog post dated April 2010. It appears that no progress has been made since.
The Library of Congress also made a big deal back in April about acquiring the entire Twitter archive, but it appears that the library has not yet made the archive available for research. Even then, the LOC’s blog posts indicate that they have no plans to open up the entire archive for public search online.
Sure, you could fall back to a regular Google search, limiting the results to just Twitter.com, but this only produces five pages of results out of the thousands of tweets that flowed around that fateful day.
For the moment, it seems that most of the Twitter record of #bozexplod still exists, though it’s not accessible to the public.
One of the major players online during the explosion was Manifest Creative, a Web design firm in Bozeman. On the morning of the blast, its owners, Philip Downer and David Howlett were sharing an apartment and operating the company out of the basement. Within minutes of the explosion, the pair were online.
“We just kind of started tweeting what we were hearing from other media sources, and a friend of mine send me a photo, which I think was one of the first photos from the scene,” Howlett, 34, said.
View Bozeman Explosion map in a larger map
As the day wore on, they just tried to keep up, Howlett said. Their site’s traffic went through the roof, crashing their server twice as people from around the world looked for information about the disaster. The pair created a landing page that collected information about the blast, everything that could be immediately found online — including a Google map showing placemarks related to the explosion.
It was that page that inspired this story. The page still exists, but many of the links on it are broken. All the links the Bozeman Chronicle’s website are broken since the paper upgraded its website in March 2010. Several of the YouTube videos don’t work anymore; those users have since deleted their accounts and videos. The links to Twitter, of course, lead to either empty hashtag search results pages or to user accounts of people (like me) who have long since moved on.
Howlett admitted that he hadn’t looked at the page for at least six months.
“Ideally, I would want things preserved for posterity, for history,” he said. “I think that those hashtags should remain and those links should remain continually linked in. I hate to see things dropping off.”
But that dropping off is natural, especially online, he said.
“Time marches on,” Howlett continued. “What was dramatic news at the time and life-altering in many cases, it just kind of fades away into history.”
The photographic record
Of all the online archives, the photos of the explosion posted to the image-sharing site Flickr have persisted best of all. Users of Flickr stuck to the same hashtag as was used on Twitter, and a search through the Flickr archive for that tag produces 117 photos. You can see some of them in the slideshow embedded on the right side of this page.
On TwitPic photos from users such as Craig Dugas, peetmegan and others survive, though searches for “bozexplod” or “Bozeman explosion” in the site’s search box produce no results. You can skip directly to the page for the boxexplod tag here, but there’s no guarantee that everyone who posted to TwitPic that day used the same tag.
No matter how you slice it, the visual record has survived best of all, though so many photos were cross-posted and re-posted that day, it’s hard to say who shot which photo and who posted it where with whose permission.
The mainstream media played a role online that day too. Radio stations, TV stations and newspapers followed the story actively that day and followed up over the next few months as the cleanup and lawsuits began. But how much of that record has survived?
A lot of the news that came out right away about the blast came from the radio, and one of the major stations broadcasting news was 95.1 KMMS. While DJ Michelle Wolfe kept her friends updated with the most recent news on Facebook, little made it to the radio station’s website — which has since been updated to a newsier format. The only coverage of the blast findable from the station’s search box is a two-year anniversary slideshow posted just this week.
Other Bozeman stations, such as KGLT and KBOZ have very little in the way of presence on the Web, and no way of listening to anything other than live audio. Effectively, the radio record is nonexistent online.
The local CBS affiliate, KBZK, has redesigned its website in the past year too, but most of its archive seems intact. A search for the term “explosion” returns 419 results dating back to February 2009, though not all of them deal specifically with the March 5 blast.
Interestingly, results for the month of March 2009 seem to be missing. The archive skips from Feb. 5, 2009, to April 9, 2009. All the breaking news reporting on the explosion itself is missing. A search for “bozexplod” turns up a retrospective story from March 3, 2010, about how social media kept people informed during the blast.
The website for the other major local news station, NBC affiliate KTVM, returns no results for the term “bozexplod” and 41 results for “downtown Bozeman explosion.” (The site was also redesigned recently.) Interestingly, the first result dealing with the explosion comes from November 2009 and is a story about NorthWestern Energy denying responsibility for the blast victim’s death.
No earlier results, including from the actual date of the blast remain on the site.
Now we come to the Chronicle, which, like seemingly every other media outlet in Bozeman, also redesigned its website in 2010. I have more insight into the inner workings of the Chronicle from that day than I do into the other media outlets — even though, at the time, I was not working for the paper.
A simple search for “bozexplod” returns one result, a story about social media and the blast. A search for “downtown explosion” returns 224 article results. Limit that search to March 2009, and you get 50 article results, including the original breaking news reports from the day of the blast.
One problem, though.
None of the dates are perfectly right. If you believe the Chronicle’s website, you’d think that downtown exploded on March 4 instead of the day after. In fact, many of the older stories in the Chronicle’s archive appear to be off by a day.
This is a result of the website upgrade process (which I was at the Chronicle for). The company that now runs our website imported all our old archives, but it pulled the wrong dates off a lot of our old files. That’s because, before the redesign in March 2010, the Chronicle uploaded individual text files to its website on the night before they were to appear on the Web. So the last modified date on these files was the day before they appeared to the public. This is the date that often appears on older articles now.
Other than that, the results in the Chronicle’s archives are surprisingly intact compared to the other mainstream media resources out there, and I think I can say that objectively enough, despite being the paper’s Web Editor.
After all the other local mainstream media are accounted for, there remain the blogs. The number of blog posts written about the explosion are too numerous and distributed to write about comprehensively, so I can only point to the few I know still exist. The Manifest Creative blog mentioned above is still around. So is one written by Tranq Jones and my own blog. Beyond that, there is no way to know how many blog posts about the explosion remain or have ceased to exist.
In a post written on March 6, 2009, Tranq Jones wrote:
Yesterday, in Bozeman, Montana, individual voices spoke loudly. They were a real time extension of an event. Yes, they were perhaps functioning as journalists. More importanly, they were conveying the power we all possess now as individuals to define ‘genuine’ for a new generation.
#bozexplod has mostly slowed to a crawl. The hashtag has burned itself out, just as I thought would happen when I created it at 8:30 yesterday morning. It’s served its usefulness, and now it’s time to move on. Take it as a learning opportunity, cherish the new Twitter friends you’ve made from the event, and then let it go.
I think these two quotes represent both sides of the same coin. The Bozeman explosion provided online media in the Bozeman area a chance to shine and established a foothold for Twitter among the tech-savvy in the community.
But, in a rather poetic reflection of the blast zone itself, time has begun to erase evidence of the blast from the Web. Downtown has moved on, and the Web has moved on. Not to wax too philosophical, but this is the way of things.
Perhaps this post should raise some concerns about the security of the digital archive. Perhaps it will scare you back into storing your photographs on paper and keeping a scrapbook of actual news clippings. Perhaps it will do nothing other than frustrate you by pointing you to pages of broken links.
I’d love to hear what you have to think about this post. Let me know in the comments.