Facebook, a popular social networking website, was a refuge for concerned students at Virginia Tech and frantic family members during the chaos and disorder of the first few hours of the shooting incident on the university campus Monday.
Students were able to utilize the highly-trafficked site and others like it to contact family and friends while cell phone lines were overloaded and unresponsive and let people know they were safe in their dorms or within locked buildings away from Norris Hall where the violence the majority of the violence occurred.
Facebook.com was launched in February of 2004, part of a new breed of website such as “MySpace” and “Friendster” dedicated to keeping friends and associates in touch through social networks—including schools, companies, and regions—online. Facebook.com claims over 19 million registered users across 47,000 networks.
These sites have become popular for planning events and making political statements, but this ability to stay so closely connected to the increasingly widespread member base served the Virginia Tech community well during Monday’s tragedy and the ensuing mayhem.
In a virtual reproduction of Sept. 11 where family members posted flyers of missing loved ones at on walls at Penn and Grand Central Stations in New York City, students at Virginia Tech used the Facebook group system to post inquiries about roommates, siblings, and friends that were unaccounted for, in hopes that someone had seen or heard information that would help to locate them. Students were also able to post their whereabouts and status for loved ones and friends to see.
In a Facebook group entitled “I’m ok at VT,” students encouraged each other to update their Facebook profiles to reflect their status as accounted for and safe, so cell phone lines would stay open for true emergencies and for more efficient notification of out-of-area acquaintances.
Caroline Neyland, a freshman from Falls Church majoring in University Studies at Virginia Tech, reported that she was able to make contact with her parents by phone, but “most contact with my friends was made through Facebook.com.”
In some cases however, the service is serving a more somber purpose. Facebook is also serving as a virtual memorial site for those who were lost in the tragedy, as well as a way to coordinate real-world vigils and memorial ceremonies.
In the hours and days after the initial violence, hundreds of groups with members from all over the world have formed to show solidarity with the affected families and the school community. At present, the group entitled “A tribute to those who passed at the Virginia Tech Shooting” has over 150,000 members and is growing by the second. Sunny Senedara, a freshman at Virginia Tech from Falls Church, described herself as the 16th member of the group “April 16, 2007 – A Moment of Silence.” Membership reached 5,000 only four hours after she joined, and as of press time, membership in this same group is approaching 40,000.
Friends and family are also using these groups to update the condition of those who have been brought to area hospitals.
Messages of support and prayers for the injured and for those who suffered a loss fill the discussion boards along with the tributes. A typical message came from Alexandra Hellquist of Brown University: “Stay strong. We’re all Hokies at heart, for these few days.” Notes like this number in the tens of thousands across the site.
Those who lived through the fear the day brought continue to post their stories publicly as well, on Facebook, student blogs and the website vtincident.com.
The ability to post information almost immediately on the Facebook site has led to its increasing popularity with news media establishments that do not normally have direct access to victims’ hospital conditions and family members so soon after an event.
Major news organizations like CNN and MSNBC have devoted considerable amounts of time and personnel to covering the online beat of networking sites, blogs and the popular video site YouTube; CNN repeatedly aired a video submitted via the internet from a student’s camera phone that recorded audible gunshots and police activity.
Other Facebook groups include school specific titles such as “Alabama has Virginia Tech on its mind” and “UGA is praying for Virginia Tech.” The latter has reached almost 3,000 members.