VA Tech Tragedy Response Reveals Force of Web

It’s been impossible not to spend hours following links to all the publicly accessible sources of information about the Virginia Tech shootings over the last couple days. Facebook and MySpace pages, LiveJournals, and Flickr give us back story and the unfiltered play-by-play.

Social web tools are a way of life for young people. And amidst ad hoc discussions on Fark, Digg, and many blogs, Facebook in particular emerged as a hub for transmission of information. “Social network” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Hard news is hard to come by, and except for the press conferences, big media outlets are getting their information from scouring the same web pages as we are (and now, “multimedia manifesto” packages received in the mail). As NewTeeVee writer Jackson told me, “I daresay that for the most part I wasn’t any less informed or up to date than your average anchormonkey.”

User-generated content and traditional media work well together in some cases — MSNBC’s profiles of victims, many based on comments left on its own site — and seem totally screwed up in others — CNN buying the “exclusive” rights to Jamal Albaughouti’s campus cell phone footage (as reported by Jeff Jarvis).

Dan Gillmor writes, “We used to say that journalists write the first draft of history. Not so, not any longer. The people on the ground at these events write the first draft.” It actually sounds pretty similar to Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of Facebook as the new publisher.

Tools like Facebook have been so closely ingrained in young people’s lives, they’ve made expressing yourself online feel innate. And on Monday, they were where students, facing jammed cell phone networks and disperse networks of people who care about them, announced they were alive. “I’m ok” is probably the simplest, most primal form of communication there is.

“Since the launching of Facebook, there’s probably nothing that has impacted the college audience as this has,” Facebook spokesperson Brandee Barker told the Los Angeles Times.

In many cases this happened through groups that are publicly accessible, in part so people who don’t attend Virginia Tech could see them. And on these same message boards on the highly organized and easily searchable site, reporters arrived looking for sources, and were derided — appropriately, in many cases — as vultures looking for a soft spot of a carcass.

Despite the fact that students were expressing themselves to the world, they didn’t want someone else to come in and retool those expressions for another venue. Despite the utter lack of privacy of the public forum of user-generated content, mourners expected to be left in peace. And the standard brusque “no comment” was expressed in a public forum, accessible to all. It’s a strange dynamic, one that will no doubt figure into the future of both news and personal expression.