Friday, August 31, 2007

FaceBook and Virginia Tech

The more I take notice, the more I'm convinced that Thomas Friedman may be right: the barriers to communication are being flattened, and quickly.

I made these voice notes one bright and sunny day in the middle of this past April; the day now permanently seared into my memory as the Virginia Tech tragedy. We live in a changed world, but the point of this journal entry is not to comment on the murderer or the tragedy itself, but rather on how people responded, both during and after.

On April 16th I sat on a couch in the Pause (a student recreation area at St Olaf), eyes glued to the TV as CNN covered the breaking news out of Virginia. As part of their coverage they interviewed several students from VTech, most of whom provided the typical, not-so-great-quality of responses one would expect from inexperienced college kids doing their first news interview. But one of the interviewees really grabbed me–she was calm, incredibly well-spoken, and the insider's story she had to tell was eye-opening. Maddie level-headedly recounted to the anchor her experience of the building being locked down, and she and her classmates being confined in a computer / publications classroom. Rather than sit by idly, they took that opportunity, in true journalistic style, to start reporting, gathering information as best they could, and writing about the events even as they were still unfolding. With the phones non-functional, they were still able to keep in communication with friends in other buildings through means like instant messaging and FaceBook, gathering any relevant details, but more importantly to make sure they were unharmed.

Hearing that is when I realized: FaceBook has changed the way people respond to tragedy. In the days to follow, many VTech students chose to honor their fallen classmates by changing their profile pictures to a specially designed VTech ribbon of mourning, and countless groups were created in the global network (meaning open for anyone anywhere to join) as a way for others outside the community to show their support.

As her interview was finishing up, I found Maddie on FaceBook and sent her a message, just something simple along the lines of "You did a really great interview on CNN; you and the VTech community are in my prayers". FaceBook has changed what it means to be a college student–it's connected us to each other, bridging the boundaries between schools. That's not a bad thing. And in this particular instance, FB gave us all the chance to show our support, to send messages of encouragement and hope, to reach out to our fellow classmates several states away. Even though it was so many states away, this tragedy, I think, touched all of us (meaning college students)–the victims were our peers; the campus, just like any other, just like mine.

Within a day or two VTech had created an entirely new section of their website whose sole purpose was to provide continuous updates on the status of the campus. Seeing this I must morbidly admit I spent a few minutes thinking about how we'd do something similar at MA should the need ever arise. In any event, I was impressed to see how quickly, and how lovingly, the web folks responded.

Thomas Friedman is really on to something. The face of communication was completely changed this time around. Videos taken on cell phones on campus in Virginia were being streamed all the way to the TV set I was watching in Northfield, Minnesota not more than half an hour after the fact. People interviewed out of VTech were just a FaceBook message away. And, in general, the Internet, for all the problems it may be causing in the world, flattened the barriers to communication, not only so that students could contact friends and family to reassure them they're okay, but also so that other students across the nation, and other people around the world, could come together as a united family to offer prayers and support.

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