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VA Tech Tragedy Response Reveals Force of Web

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It’s been impossible not to spend hours following links to all the publicly accessible sources of information about the Virginia Tech shootings over the last couple days. Facebook and MySpace pages, LiveJournals, and Flickr give us back story and the unfiltered play-by-play.

Social web tools are a way of life for young people. And amidst ad hoc discussions on Fark, Digg, and many blogs, Facebook in particular emerged as a hub for transmission of information. “Social network” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Hard news is hard to come by, and except for the press conferences, big media outlets are getting their information from scouring the same web pages as we are (and now, “multimedia manifesto” packages received in the mail). As NewTeeVee writer Jackson told me, “I daresay that for the most part I wasn’t any less informed or up to date than your average anchormonkey.”

User-generated content and traditional media work well together in some cases — MSNBC’s profiles of victims, many based on comments left on its own site — and seem totally screwed up in others — CNN buying the “exclusive” rights to Jamal Albaughouti’s campus cell phone footage (as reported by Jeff Jarvis).

Dan Gillmor writes, “We used to say that journalists write the first draft of history. Not so, not any longer. The people on the ground at these events write the first draft.” It actually sounds pretty similar to Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of Facebook as the new publisher.

Tools like Facebook have been so closely ingrained in young people’s lives, they’ve made expressing yourself online feel innate. And on Monday, they were where students, facing jammed cell phone networks and disperse networks of people who care about them, announced they were alive. “I’m ok” is probably the simplest, most primal form of communication there is.

“Since the launching of Facebook, there’s probably nothing that has impacted the college audience as this has,” Facebook spokesperson Brandee Barker told the Los Angeles Times.

In many cases this happened through groups that are publicly accessible, in part so people who don’t attend Virginia Tech could see them. And on these same message boards on the highly organized and easily searchable site, reporters arrived looking for sources, and were derided — appropriately, in many cases — as vultures looking for a soft spot of a carcass.

Despite the fact that students were expressing themselves to the world, they didn’t want someone else to come in and retool those expressions for another venue. Despite the utter lack of privacy of the public forum of user-generated content, mourners expected to be left in peace. And the standard brusque “no comment” was expressed in a public forum, accessible to all. It’s a strange dynamic, one that will no doubt figure into the future of both news and personal expression.

18 Responses to “VA Tech Tragedy Response Reveals Force of Web”

  1. Also notable in a dark way: A young guy at a tech school, and he chose to distribute this via sending to NBC in NY rather than simply uploading it to Youtube from his dorm and skipping the trip to Fedex. Yes– we know he was deranged and not thinking clearly on anything that came through in his words or actions.

    But you know that if he chose the latter distribution route, we would also have a huge theme now reverberating through the blogosphere that THIS was the event that signalled the power shift from old media to new, which would have made this post’s sub-theme even stronger.

  2. Anon,

    thanks for your insights. i think it is obvious that you didn’t read the piece, because it talks about how facebook is where those impacted by the tragedy turned to. I think it is a post that showcases how the internet-based medium are becoming more pervasive in our lives.

  3. Rob Mowery

    Indeed the VT happenings have been terrible from all aspects. I think the original intent of the post was to point out how fast the information and in some cases dis-information happened, not just to the locale, but globally.

    If one looks back to 1927 when the bath school house disaster happened:

    One could imagine that during that it most likely took days to reach other areas of the US and probably weeks, if not months to hit the news of other countries – if at all.

    Again – it is sad. But I think this does illustrate the original intent of the post to show how small our world has become based on the interconnectivity and the rate mass-media can proliferate.

  4. “It’s been impossible not to spend hours following links…”

    Uh, yes – it’s been possible. Just depends upon how much morbid curiosity overrides your normal search for information and understanding of the world around us.

    Terrible event? You betcha. So was the violent end to another couple hundred lives in Iraq. Daily.

    Interesting events and topics? They never end. Y’all cover many – which is why I drop by.

    I’m not making a critical interpersonal analysis here, folks. Just a sociological observation. GigaOM didn’t try to turn into MySpace – and I would presume the usual breadth and depth of life interests prevailed.

  5. Great post. I think it is critical to consider that the same new media foundations (IP, P2P, GPS, social networks, VoIP, etc.) that underscore your description, and many of you at GigaOm blog about frequently in other realms, could facilitate much better and more proactive public safety type communications, and help avert or minimize situations like this. Described in more detail over at NextBlitz.

  6. Paul Kapustka said:

    Professional reporters move
    toward shooting all the time —
    that is how AP, Reuters,
    Agence France Presse and
    others get pictures and
    stories from war zones,
    countries in turmoil. But the
    are paid professionals who
    know the risks, and balance
    personal safety with getting
    the story or the photo. Is it
    worth getting shot to get fame
    as CNN’s cell phone
    camera-holder? Lack of common
    sense and not the media will
    be to blame.

    Good points Paul. But that does not excuse journalists such as Michael Sneed at the Chicago Sun-Times for spreading misinformation BEFORE the facts were made public. Sneed said that the shooter was from Shanghai and insinuated that the person was Chinese and was in the U.S. on a Visa issued by Shanghai. Obviously this is not the case, and Sneed was quoted by so many other news agencies and this misinformation spread for a while. It caused people, particularly Chinese people, both inside and outside of America to start feeling sad and upset. The question is if Liz and Om are going to allow me to publish this comment here on this blog (they blocked my first attempt) or are they going to censor because they want to cover the very bad miscue of the Chicago Sun-Times for which Snee has yet to offer an apology. It is very upsetting when anyone (mass media or Web 2.0 citizen journalists) spread misinformation before the facts are made available. You rarely see stand-up true reporting and news agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press spreading misinformation before the facts have been verified!

  7. I mentioned some stuff related to this in my blog:

    “Hitwise reported that Virginia Tech’s Facebook Web site experienced a 555% increase in visitors on Monday, compared to Sunday’s traffic. Compared to the previous Monday, traffic was up 407%, according to figures Hitwise released Wednesday.

    Let me first say that my thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims of this tragic event.

    I want to start by saying I have a huge issue with Facebook and Myspace on this. You may be thinking to yourself “huh? Why would you have an issue, people are using them to communicate”. My issue is that these sites are getting tons of press and page hits from this event”.

    Please join me in the call to end profit from tragedy…

  8. To give you an idea of how an “anchormonkey” from a pre-Web dinosaur era royally screwed up, Michael Sneed of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper had alleged to have known from a so-called source that the man who killed all these kids at VA Tech was China and here on a Visa issued from Shanghai. The problem with this is that all other “anchormonkeys” such as on CNN and Fox picked up on it and quoted Michael Sneed and the Sun-Times BEFORE the authorities in Virginia later revealed the the shooter was originally from South Korea but had been in the U.S. for many years. This spread of misinformation totally upset my friends in China who are at Universities in Beijing and Shanghai. Sneed should be fired IMHO!

    Here in fact is the original link and an excerpt of the quote from Michael Sneed:,CST-NWS-SNEED17.article

    The 25-year-old man being
    investigated for the deadliest
    college carnage in U.S.
    history reportedly arrived in
    San Francisco on a United
    Airlines flight on Aug. 7,
    2006, on a visa issued in
    Shanghai, the source said.
    Investigators had not linked
    him to any terrorist groups,
    the source added.

    Isn’t it journalism 101 that journalists are only supposed to report the FACT and NOT speculation? Its a fantastic world we live in when people can push back against the old mass media dinosaurs who used to think they could rule the world as the news “gatekeepers”. If Michael Sneed isn’t fired for spreading mis-information before the facts were truly available, then perhaps the blogosphere of social networks, and the wisdom of crowds, will truly usurp the jobs of dinosaurs. Good riddance!

  9. Paul Kapustka

    Professional reporters move toward shooting all the time — that is how AP, Reuters, Agence France Presse and others get pictures and stories from war zones, countries in turmoil. But they are paid professionals who know the risks, and balance personal safety with getting the story or the photo. Is it worth getting shot to get fame as CNN’s cell phone camera-holder? Lack of common sense and not the media will be to blame.

  10. Jean Biri

    I first learned about this tragic event on Wikipedia and since then I have been refreshing the page to keep up with the latest development.

    I did not even bother with any MSM because I expect to see some reporting motivated by some sort of political agenda.

    One thing I have to say for sure is that although most social networks get blamed for child abuse cases, stalking and other social evils, this time, everyone will appreciate the fact that they’re important in our lives and that like every tool used by humans, it can be used for the good or bad intentions.

    May God bless the families of those whose lives were brutally taken away.

  11. Liz, some of the things happening are good and productive, but some things could be bad. The “citizen journalist” camera cell phone clip that CNN ran showed actions taken by a student that I doubt a professional reporter would have taken. Moving towards a shooting?

    I am not all that sure that things like this are good, and sooner or later someone will get hurt or killed and I think media will be at least partly responsible.