Friday, April 20, 2007

Student Use of Technology During Virginia Tech Tragedy

As the Virginia Tech tragedy unfolded students used a familiar the technology to keep connected with the events, friends, and families: Facebook.

Using laptops and wireless connections, students created new Facebook groups on the fly as the day unfolded. Thousands of people joined a group called “I’m ok at VT,” which was used by students to announce that they were safe, ask for details about friends unaccounted for, and to report the names of victims. Other groups such as "VT Unite" were also created and thousands of people world wide not associated with VT joined them.

The use of this social networking site to publish and discover information and report personal experiences was a natural since it is what today's students use to gather online. Facebook provided immediate and quickly-updated information.

As I watched the quality of the footage released much it was obviously generated by camera phones. In my Technology Trends for 2007 post I described the emergence of a concept called Mobcasting, a phenomenon where event observers capture events on their video phones and podcast the footage on a blog. I described how the the resulting aggregation of content will lead to live event coverage by bloggers that is more in depth than can be captured by mainstream media. This tragedy demonstrated of power and potential of this concept.

Unfortunately, there was dubious information also being created. There has already been media debate about the accuracy of the information that was contained on these sites. Of course, traditional media outlets have processes they use to vet information before it is released. While this verification of information takes time it is not flawless (Dan Rather, Jayson Blair). The trade off is that is one wants to have information faster it may not be as dependable or reliable.

Still, I think there's a great potential for the ability to connect individuals that are there on-the-ground during events as they unfold and using blogs, RSS feeds, and Facebook as tool for publishing their personal experiences. While some can argue the result may not be as accurate as mainstream media, the coverage is significantly more complete. Sphere: Related Content


Dave said...


With respect to McLuhan, do you see

Dave said...

Whoops, sorry about that...

As I was saying, with respect to McLuahn, it seems that technologies such as camera phones, social networking software (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) and blog software shapes the not only the "pace" at which the information is received (in this case info about the shootings at VA Tech), but it also, according to McLuhan, changes the "scale" of the of the information. I'm concerned about the possible ill-effects of this change in scale on tragic and violent news such as that witnessed in Blacksburg. McLuhan uses the example of the steam engine changing not just the speed at which people could travel between hubs, but the way that it shaped the construction of cities in order to receive the influx of travelers. How might the quick influx of such violent info shape and change us, specifically our ability to accomodate it, process it, digest it. Whatever metaphor you want to use it seems that we might be overlooking the trauma of such info and how technologies such as the ones you mention might diffuse it--mediate it, as McLuhan might say--to the point where, overtime (perhaps as little as a decade, or as much as a century), we change the way we react to tragedies such as this one at VA Tech. In short-- and here's the leap--is it alarmist to be concerned with the ways in which technology has changed/is changing the way we mourn, the way we think of ourselves in relation to tragedy because we are hurriedly, nearly instanteously, embraced by a virtual community? Is it possible--and here's an even bigger leap--that as our capability to capture and send information increases in speed and scale, might--and again, I'm speaking over time (decades, generations)--our relationship to the divine change?

These are honest questions, not meant to antagonize or challenge, or in anyway diminish the truly horrific events that took place in Blacksburg. I just worry that in our rush to embrace technologies (extenders of the human, as McLuhan has said), we may find ourselves overreaching in ways that obfuscate the great mystery that is at the center of human existence, namely suffering.

Eric Schnell said...

You pose some very interesting philosophical questions and thanks for the McLuhan references!

"Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet, it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effect upon him." - McCluhan