How Can Social Media Support a Community in Mourning in Aurora?

What's to come?
July 27 2012 5:22 PM

How Can Social Media Better Support a Community in Mourning?

A professor who was on campus for the Virginia Tech shooting reflects on Facebook’s role after a tragedy.

Virginia Tech students comfort one another during a convocation ceremony at Cassell Coliseum a day after a gunman shot and killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself April 17, 2007 in Blacksburg, Viriginia.
Virginia Tech students comfort one another during a ceremony a day after a gunman killed 33 people, including himself.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

For many of us, the news of the shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., evoked strong feelings about gun control, mental health care, and violence in pop culture, even parenting. But for me, it brought back memories of another shooting, one that coincided with the first great flowering of social media.

I was a faculty member at Virginia Tech when we had our shootings. I very rarely talk about it, and I've never written about it. Of course, it comes to mind every time there's another shooting, and I mostly try to hide from the all-too-familiar media blitz and political positioning that seems inevitably to follow.

When the classroom shootings occurred, I was in my office, two buildings over, sitting on the floor—low down, away from the window with the door closed, as we had been instructed—on the phone with a former student discussing Camus. A floor above me, my colleague's office was empty. He was in the classroom, where he died. No one knew quite what was going on at the time, of course. We had been told there was an armed fugitive on campus, but that was the second one in that academic year. We had recently had a series of bomb threats as well. The security lockdown had an eerie but very everyday feeling.

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In the days that followed, we came together as a community and developed a very clear sense that this was our tragedy—that, really, no one else was welcome. The local journalists were overwhelmed by the national media, who set up giant satellite trucks to broadcast live from our parking lots, quads, and pathways. Our administration put up signs informing faculty that we had the right to ask the media to leave our classrooms. I heard from a student that some reporters had passed themselves off as fellow Hokies, listened to the stories of students, and cried beside them before revealing that they were with the media. Interviews were conducted in which students were asked leading questions about how angry they were at our administration. Most of us had strong feelings of sadness and solidarity—even, in many cases, with Cho Seung-Hui, the 33rd victim, whom our community had also failed. But toward the national media machine—there we felt anger.

Our tragedy had become a product to be sold, with a slick computer-graphic lead-in on every channel, and, of course, a point of leverage for those arguing for either greater or lesser availability of guns.

I joined Facebook on April 17, 2007, the day after the shootings. In the information vacuum that followed the shootings, the VT community began to use a Facebook group called "I'm OK at VT" to check in and check up on others. We turned to social media to meet our own community needs and to maintain our own connections, to share our own information and have our own discussions.

That month, Facebook reached 20 million active users. Today, it has approximately 900 million. Users’ relationship with Facebook has changed dramatically, as it's grown from a college-centered socializing site to a widespread network including people from every demographic. The media have changed, too, as we have become more likely to get news and information from our networks rather than from the networks.