Saturday, October 6, 2007

Facebook and the VA Tech shooting

This week we are seeing for the first time the full power of the internet and, more specifically, Facebook, as a means of instant communication, commentary, and community for Generation Y. The internet age has seen its fair share of tragedies (September 11 and Katrina are probably the most notable examples to U.S. citizens), but none has been felt so personally and extensively by the generation that is most web savvy as that which occurred at Virginia Tech yesterday. The reactions to the massacre were fast and furious. Since cell phone coverage was spotty due to the overwhelming number of relatives and students trying to get in touch, many resorted to the web to reach each other. Facebook (and MySpace, to a lesser extent) served as fast, reliable ways for VT students to notify outsiders of their safety. At the same time, students across the country logged on en masse to learn the latest news and share their thoughts on the tragedy.

Wikipedia, the online, open-source (meaning it can be edited by the public) encyclopedia had an article on the perpetrator, Cho Seung-hui, even before traditional news outlets had publicized his identity. The main Wikipedia article for the shooting was filled with details covering every aspect of the story, from the names of the victims to a timeline of the day’s events. The page cited nearly 100 sources for its content, legitimizing the site as an accurate and thorough resource for information.

Browsing through pages on Facebook (the most popular website among college students and the sixth most-trafficked site on the internet) provides a clear indication of the zeitgeist of the national university community. As of midday Tuesday hundreds of groups had been formed on Facebook, most in a show of collegial solidarity with the Hokie community and in remembrance of the victims, but others containing more controversial messages. A search for Cho’s name only one hour after his name was released revealed no profile for him (whether it existed prior to yesterday is unknown), but over 40 groups “dedicated” to him, the vast majority using obscene and generally unprintable language to condemn him for his actions. Groups such as “Blame Cho Seung-Hui (VT Shooter)” and “Cho Seung-Hui: Fuel Peace with your words, not anger” represent two takes on the tragedy. The largest of these groups had over 6000 members by Tuesday afternoon.

Some students, however, sought to initiate a dialogue about society’s role in Cho’s desperate crime, attributing blame to such factors as America’s gun culture and the alienation of minority students at largely homogenous universities. The message boards for the groups quickly filled with discussion about who or what is to blame, as well as how people are reacting and memorializing the now-notorious day. Several students formed groups to address the racial issues likely to arise, imploring their peers not to judge the entire Asian community based on the horrific deeds of one individual. There even developed meta-discussion about the meaning of the groups themselves, with some people criticizing their creators for giving Cho the supposed satisfaction of widespread fame and attention.

Countless students have even temporarily adopted as their profile picture some version of a modified Virginia Tech logo, either with a black ribbon behind it or paired with the logo of their own school and the phrase “Today, we all are Hokies.” The originator of this viral show of unity remains anonymous, but his design has swept across Facebook with amazing speed.

Other websites also played an important role in disseminating information and providing a forum for discussion. YouTube, a website rivaling Facebook in its popularity with students, had half a dozen videos related to the shooting in its daily top 20 most-viewed list, including a firsthand cellphone camera recording by a VT student of shots being fired. The student is said to have signed a deal with CNN for exclusive rights to his video, but exclusivity does not last long in today’s generally lawless virtual universe, due in part to the frequent disregard for old media rules and computer skills of modern youth.

April 16, 2007 will no doubt go down in as one of the most gruesome days in American history, and the American people will hopefully emerge with both a better awareness for stopping future tragedies before they happen, as well as better strategies for administrative reactions should similar situations occur again. But the day will also likely become a watershed moment in the psyche of Generation Y, showing them not only the potential they have to influence the lives of others, but the ever-growing importance of the internet as a source of knowledge, comfort, and catharsis.

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