How students tracked the Virginia Tech shootings online.

Culture and technology.
April 17 2007 7:09 PM

im glad you are ok though

How students tracked the tragedy online.

Screenshot of Fark.com

As the shooting at Virginia Tech unfolded yesterday, the media and the curious descended on MySpace and LiveJournal. The reporters were looking for scoops, the rest of us were rubbernecking. A few instant stars were uncovered, such as Bryce, a Virginia Tech student who wrote this entry in his journal on Monday at 2 p.m.:

Tears run as the death count climbs.  Currently 32 are dead.

I cannot begin to describe the pain that runs through me now.  The anger, loss, and the unknown.

The only thing I do know is that a list awaits.  A list in which may include a friend or several.  A list of passion, dreams, aspirations, of life and hope-- suddenly gone.

Time has suspended.

I look at Foxnew's website to see pictures of the dead being carried out of Norris hall.  I feel removed, like this isn't happening here right now.  It is on the news someplace far away, and I can just turn off the TV to make it go away.

My friends could be dead.  Tears continue.

The first comment to the post reads:

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Hi This is Falice Chin from CBC Newsworld. We are looking for witnesses right now for live phone interviews. Please call me 403-521-6038 ASAP THANKS!

And then someone sent this anonymous response to the response:

Please let us exploit your grief. ASAP THANKS!

Sitting in his dorm room, Bryce experienced a new kind of 15 minutes: writing in what had yesterday been a near-private journal and had now become a soapbox to the world. He was willing to talk to the media. But other students were not—after their entries were discovered, they rapidly set their journals and MySpace pages to friends-only.

The livejournal entries were mostly by women. The boys seemed to dominate at Fark.com, a site that posts strange and funny Internet stories and then opens them up to comment. Usually, it's an excellent place to waste time in class and try out Maxim-type jokes. Midmorning yesterday, this story from the CBC was posted to the main page: "Mammoth, meteorite or bezoar? Christie's offering all 3 in unusual auction. I've always wanted my own bezoar." It was followed by another story: "Shooting confirmed at Virginia Tech." The comments start with a quip—"wheres Marcus Vick?" (Marcus Vick is the trouble-prone former quarterback at Virginia Tech)—but it's soon clear that some of the "Farkers" themselves are near the scene. HellYeahHokie writes in a post dated 10:05 a.m.: "Looks like McBryde is being cleared out."

The next six hours of Fark comments make for an amazing record. At first, the Farkers don't know how many have been killed. People speculate that the shooter is a townie or one of the cadets on campus. At 10:52 a.m., HellYeahHokie chimes in to defend the cadets: "I will give the cadets some props. While everyone was fleeing from buildings, they were there helping to keep things organized and assisting the police who were showing up from every police force within a 50 mile radius." The Farkers note both the moment when CNN increases the font size on its breaking-news headline and when the network dubs the incident a "massacre." A lot of posts try to find the edge of humor in the situation. Some fail: "Do they still give out all A's if your roommate dies during the semester?" Some succeed: "Thank you everyone at Colorado State for either being too drunk or too stoned to do this." The Farkers are also aware of the frantic, competitive Internet information-chase that follows sensational events: "No one has links to the shooters myspace page yet? Dissapointing."

The Farkers find a site where they can listen to the police scanner, and they post e-mails and news stories when they hear or read them. They worry about the message board's inevitable descent into a gun-control flame war and warn about not overwhelming the Virginia Tech Web servers. Then, at 4:03 p.m., this IM session appears in a post:

[15:38] a: i know 3 of the people that were killed so far....everything is just to unreal
15:38] b: wow man, i am sorry
[15:38] b: were they seniors
[15:38] b: what have u heard has happened
[15:38] a: They were grad students
[15:38] b: damn man, again i am sorry, my thoughts and prayers are for them and their families and friends
[15:38] a: yea me to
[15:38] a: well a guy in my design group for land development. (lee hixon is a grad student..) he lived
[15:38] a: he was in the room where the guy killed everyone
[15:38] a: the guy shot at him 4 times and missed
[15:39] a: he fell to the ground and played dead
[15:39] a: but he lived..
[15:39] a: he said some of the names to me who died...he said the whole class was killed except him and one other guy
[15:39] b: wow, what class was it?
[15:39] a: Graduate Class for Advanced Hydrology
[15:39] b: thats nuts man, i cant fathum what he was going through
[15:39] a: he is so shooken up
[15:39] a: when he called me, i thought he was joking
[15:39] a: he was so hysterical
[15:39] a: he said blood was everywhere and all over him
[15:39] a: he said bullet holes were all in the walls and desks...
[15:39] a: he said he thought he was dreaming
[15:39] a: he had bullets fly and miss him
[15:39] b: damn man, i dont know what to say, i just feel for everyone involed
[15:39] a: yea same here
[15:39] a: im glad you are ok though
[15:39] a: i just talked to eddie
[15:39] a: and he said him and walter are ok
[15:39] b: cool
[15:39] a: ok well im going to go for now...but i will talk to you later man...ill talk to you
later if i hear anything else
[15:39] b: cool, later man

That's when HellYeahHokie realizes that he may know some people who were killed: "I checked the guide, and sure enough Advanced Hydrology is taught in Norris 206 at 9:00 AM. It's taught by GV Lognathan, who I've had as a professor and who is one of the favorites in the department. The likelyhood that several of my friends were in that class is pretty good. God dammit." The adrenalized mood on the message board deflates. People send notes directed at HYH, wishing him well. Joke over.

The Fark message board was one of a few that named the shooter—a name that turned out to be wrong. At least one blog, Ask a Chinese, went out and grabbed this person's MySpace page. (The site's writers later apologized.) MySpace holds a central position in this drama. This morning, it was noted on Fark.com that the shooter identified by police, Cho Seung-Hui, did not have a presence on MySpace—another sign of his outcast status. There's a two-fold disappoinment at this fact. For the angry, no way to leave a flaming message (or worse). For the media, it's as if his MySpace page would have held the key to his motive, as if the online life of college students is where they hide their true selves. (His plays, apparently, have been found.) Meanwhile, the MySpace pages of the victims remain online with their painful messages: "DID U GET SHOT FUCKER???" and "MAXXXXX-please call us!!!" But anyone who knows the people who died would say that their MySpace pages represent just a fraction of who they were. Now they are memorials, filling up with notes, custom graphics, and memories.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.