[18 April 2007]
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)
ORLANDO, Fla.—Justin Blau spent Monday checking the Facebook profiles of his friends at Virginia Tech to see who was alive.
On Tuesday, the 20-year-old Tampa, Fla., man was back online, helping plan a memorial run for a friend who was killed in the massacre.
Blau illustrates how the Internet played a vital role in the coverage and aftermath of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, particularly among technically savvy college students. Examples include:
The most compelling video of the massacre was taken with a student’s cell phone and posted on CNN.com, where it has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Names of the victims were posted on the Web site of the student newspaper hours before they were officially released.
Photos of victims quickly went up on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr.com, and video tribute songs and messages have deluged YouTube.
A Web site was set up to distribute “Remembering VT” wristbands and to raise money for the victims and their families.
Since Monday morning, the Internet has provided a personal, more in-depth examination of the incident than cable-TV news or other major media outlets.
It has allowed people to quickly seek information about friends and family without having to wait for names to pop up on CNN.
For Virginia Tech students locked down in dormitories with limited or no cell-phone service, Facebook gave them a critical link to the outside world. For students on the outside such as Blau, it allowed them to quickly find out who was OK so they could send good wishes.
Before the names of the dead were officially released, Facebook users identified them, posted memories on profiles and created groups to memorialize them. One Facebook group started in Greece had more than 160,000 members Tuesday.
“I think this event illustrates the power of social networking to connect people when they care most about being connected,” said Bill Mitchell, online editor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research and education center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Facebook was created three years ago as a way for college students to connect with their peers, though today more than half of its users aren’t in college. This week, however, it became a virtual hub for students seeking information about the shootings.
When Blau first got word of the shootings, he went to Facebook and pulled up a list of his 33 friends at Virginia Tech. He was relieved when he saw most had messages on their profiles such as “Mike is alive and safe . . . thanks all for your concern!” and “Laura is praying for the Virginia Tech campus.”
Others joined a Facebook group called “I’m ok at VT,” which had more than 3,000 members by Tuesday afternoon.
“If they have updated their profile or had online activity after the shooting, then it let me know they were OK, because it showed they were able to get to a computer,” said Blau, who grew up in Virginia and will move to Orlando this month.
One of Blau’s friends was Mike Newman, 21, a junior at Virginia Tech. Newman, who was locked down in his dorm for most of Monday, was able to speak to his immediate family and friends by cell phone, but for the rest of his friends, Facebook was the only way he could quickly let them know he was OK.
Throughout the day, more than 100 friends from around the world - some of whom he hadn’t heard from in years - posted messages on his profile telling him they were happy he was safe.
“You can’t call everyone; you can’t call hundreds of people,” Newman said.
While an active Facebook profile was a good sign for friends and family seeking information, an inactive profile quickly led friends to think the worst. Leslie Sherman, a high-school classmate of Blau’s had not been online since the shootings.
People posted desperate pleas to her online profile, but there was no response. Blau later found out that she had a class from 9 to 10 a.m. in Norris Hall, the site of most of the killings.
When Blau learned she was dead, he went to Sherman’s profile and posted a note about a road trip he took with her and about 20 other students during their senior year in high school.
“It brings me closure because it leaves me the hope that she is up in heaven, and who knows, maybe there are computers up there and she can log in,” Blau said. “Her family can also look at it and know that there are a lot of people out there who are missing her and caring about her.”
Facebook was where Clarice Sollog, 26, a Virginia Tech graduate student living in Apopka, Fla., and working in Maitland, Fla., got the news that someone she knew had died.
“I know . . . that Stack was shot in the leg, but other than that everyone I know is alright,” a friend posted on Sollog’s profile Monday.
“Stack” was Ryan Clark, a 22-year-old from Georgia who was in the Virginia Tech marching band with Sollog.
Being 700 miles away in a city where she knows only a few people made Monday’s tragedy especially difficult for Sollog.
“I sit here 11 hours away from Blacksburg, a place I still call home, and I feel so helpless,” Sollog wrote on her profile at 12:56 a.m. Tuesday.