Facebook may appear, on the surface, to be a time-waster, a Web site you go on at work to pass the time or to find out who’s broken up with who on the infamous news feed.
However, Facebook became more than just a Web site last Monday; it became a legitimate site for information and an outlet for the outpouring of grief and support that came in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, which killed 32 people plus the gunman in the nation’s worst shooting rampage in history.
In a matter of hours, groups sprung up on the social networking site, denouncing the shootings, offering condolences and posting names of the dead and wounded.
One group, “I’m ok at VT,” was one of the primary information sources for students frantically seeking information on friends, family and loved ones. This went for student’s walls, too, where thousands of messages were left, asking questions like “are you okay?” along with sympathetic comments like “I’m thinking about you.”
Many asked of the whereabouts and conditions of their friends, often with heartbreaking results, as Victoria Borkey discovered when she inquired about a classmate. “She sits beside me in my Abnormal Psychology class and I really want to know if she is ok,” wrote Borkey, before another student informed her that her friend was one of the casualties.
Others were created specifically to assure the safety of those from a certain area, like “James River ’06 Grads at VT who are safe,” which included lists of Virginia Tech students from James River High School who survived the attacks.
Another group, titled “A tribute to those who passed at the Virginia Tech shootings,” currently counts over 320,000 as members, with almost 18,000 wall posts and more than 1,000 discussion topics. Students debate everything from gun control to Rosie O’Donnell and offer prayers to the families of the victims, creating a dialogue among students from all over the country and even the world.
Students at VT and other colleges replaced their profile pictures with black ribbons embossed with the VT logo, many of which included messages of support like “For today, we are all Hokies,” referring to the college’s mascot.
This flock to Facebook cemented its status as a socially relevant informational tool among college students, replacing traditional modes of communication like phones and bringing the Web site to the forefront of the discussion on the tragedy. With close to 10 million visitors, Facebook seemed a logical choice for a quick dissemination of information for college students affected by the shooting.
“It says a lot about technology, power and age,” Jessie Gamble, a professor of women’s and gender studies who teaches courses on pop culture at the College, said. “It’s amazing to me that it’s tragedy that gets the mainstream media to acknowledge new forms of technology.”
Students here at the College, although separated geographically from the shootings, did not allow this to deter them from reaching out to VT through Facebook by offering encouraging words and leaving messages of grief and sympathy on walls.
“I invited people to a group dedicated to those who died that day and their families because I wanted people to feel connected with everyone else across the nation,” Shane McLoughlin, sophomore biology major, said. “It was both an attempt to unite the heartbroken and also to show support for the families and the campus torn apart.”
“It’s often easier to deal with such intense emotions when you have a forum to talk about it, especially among peers,” McLoughlin said.
Still, others felt that Facebook was perhaps too casual a medium to convey the proper respect and reverence such a catastrophe commanded. Instead of calling a friend to check on them, many deemed it easier to take a minute to leave a quick electronic message, a move some considered impersonal and borderline offensive.
“I think it’s thoughtful, but a shallow way of showing your support,” Kelly Merna, junior accounting major, said.
Some students were concerned that Facebook could even become a spot to spread hateful comments, as witnessed by numerous posts that contained slurs against Asians and immigrants since shooter Seung-Hui Cho was from South Korea.
“Please, don’t let one Korean change your perspectives on other Koreans,” one student pleaded on a discussion thread.
McLoughlin reiterated this call for understanding and remembrance: “I hope that in months when people look at the groups to which they belong, they see the group devoted to Virginia Tech and even if for a second, remember how important life is . that we shouldn’t end the day without saying ‘I love you’ to each and everyone who we couldn’t live without.”