Connected to the news by a generation of wired witnesses
Unaware of a shooting in a dormitory that left two people dead, Virginia Tech graduate student Jamal al Barghouti headed across campus to meet with his advisor. Nearing Norris Hall he ran into police, guns drawn, rushing inside. As al Barghouti took cover, he pulled out his Nokia camera-phone and started recording. Then came the haunting sound of 26 gunshots. As the volley increased in intensity he unexpectedly recorded his own startled voice: “Wow,” he said.
Across campus, freshman Bryce Carter was hiding in his dorm room. When word reached him that fellow students had been shot, he went online. After assuring friends that he was alive, he wrote these works on Bryce’s Journal, his blog: “My friends could be dead.”
Over at the business school, computer science-business technology major Kevin Cupp was locked down, distanced from the computer servers he manages as webmaster of Planet Blacksburg. So he sent an instant message on his cell phone to Twitter, the new digital network where people describe what they are doing at the moment. His first of many posts that day: “Trapped inside of Pamplin, shooter on campus, they won’t let us leave.
What we experienced about the horrific events on a black day in Blacksburg owes to a savvy, social generation connected emotionally and technologically to its media. Their eyewitness descriptions, photos, video and reporting from a remote, rural Virignia town – one of the world’s first connected communities — made a story visceral to the world.
The ability to instantly capture and disseminate information at a time when it was most needed, as well as to communicate with each other across time and geography, has not only helped unite a community but has become a real-time example of how personal media empowers and defines communication in today’s connected society.
Watching events unfold, the shift in the power of media was perceptible. Traditional broadcasters and publishers competently covered the tragic events in Blacksburg. But the story belongs to Virginia Tech students. They were at once reporters, witnesses and subjects of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. It was like watching a new kind of reality show where the stars used their devices, their social networks, and their wits to survive and to cope.
News organizations responded by plundering material posted on the web and pumping their own content into the online ether. The Internet encouraged a collective expression of emotion that was faithfully reported by traditional media outlets. As if the world outside newsrooms didn’t already know, CBS News ran this story a day after the shootings: Students turn to web in time of tragedy. The Los Angeles Times went with: Students Trace a Tragedy Online.
So, too, did adults. While social networking sites such as Facebook and My Space became an integral part of the story, millions turned to the sites produced by mainstream news outlets for the latest from Blacksburg. But the Internet had done more than create a distribution center for news and information; it became a place for news to happen. An online community emerged around the story. The immediacy of the medium helped to relay both the scope of news as well as the full emotion of the event. Once again, citizen journalists armed with mobile phones supplied invaluable material, including pictures and video footage of the shootings, to established news organizations.
Newspapers lost more hallowed ground in the media war for immediate attention and influence. An editor for The Washington Post lamented the “dead-tree” limitations of covering a breaking story that made newspaper editions the harbingers of yesterday’s news tomorrow. A day late and many breaking developments short, the mighty Post was relegated to this headline on Tuesday, April 17, a full day after the shootings: “Gunman Kills 32 at Virginia Tech In Deadliest Shooting in U.S. History.”
There can be no denying now that We Media – the ecosystem in which everyone is media – is the dominant force of communication in our culture. The digital network has changed the way we create, access and distribute news and information.
Virginia Tech’s students shined even as it they were portrayed as victims. One articulate student-witness set the record straight while being interviewed by a testy CNN reporter. “Don’t you get it?” he asked the reporter. “Its our story, not yours.”
As the student went off to awaiting cameras for a series of interviews and special reports with the other television networks, a CNN producer channeled the network’s coverage to a report on counseling services on campus.
The TV moment recalled the recent complaint by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams that the had spent a career as a journalist only to compete now with “some guy named Vinny.”
But it was not Vinny with whom Williams had to compete in Blacksburg. It was Jamal, Bryce and Kevin. They are, for the moment, the celebrated journalists of their generation, embedded correspondents reporting from a war zone with all the courage and authenticity that radio reporter Edward R. Murrow famously exhibited covering the bombing of London during World War II.
Undeniably less sophisticated than Morrow’s reporting, their citizen journalism is shown, replayed, recast, remixed and referenced over-and-over again on the Internet as well as on traditional newscasts. The unfettered, unfiltered coverage of the shootings is accepted for what it is, unapologetic for its lack of cohesiveness or for its personal perspective. The audience understands the story is personal and incomplete, a work in progress that continues long after the network camera crews and out-of-town reporters leave Blacksburg. Suddenly, the Internet looks less like a threat to ‘old media’, and more like a resource it can easily exploit.
The We Media Generation now looks to pick up the pieces, to remember their friends, their community, and to share their stories of survival with the rest of the world. It is the informing story of their lives. No wonder they asked NBC and the outside media to leave for violating their fragile community by repeatedly overplaying, then replaying over and over, the grotesque rants of a killer, once a disturbed fellow student.
The story of a generation turned quickly to coping with unimaginable tragedy, a cruel and unforeseen twist for college students living in the sanctuary of a college campus. Amid tragedy there was pathos and authenticity in the way they mourned, grieved and supported one another through public acts of catharsis.
At the Tuesday night vigil for their slain comrades Virginia Tech students lit “The Drill” with candles and the glow of screens on their cell phones. Virtual vigils emerged across the web. Happy Slip, a vlogger in New York City, posted a photo sent via a cell phone from the vigil. These words accompanied the photo: “Know that a community here in New York was on their knees praying for you tonight.” Thousands of bloggers shared similar sentiments. Technorati, a web site that indexes blogs, tracked nearly 30,000 posts about Virginia Tech the following day.
As expressions of sorrow and support, memorials proliferated on the web. West Virginia Blogger collected links to the personal web sites of victims, many on My Space or Facebook, as a way of paying tribute. “It’s one thing to hear a list of names on TV, or read them online,” she wrote, “but if you take a second to view a bit of the person’s personal life it will give you a deeper understanding of that person.”
Forums were established on sites such as VTtragedy.com and VTincident.com for students to express their condolences and grief. The creators of OneDayBlogSilence.com proposed a day of silence in the blogosphere to pay tribute to the victims. Citizens of the virtual world Second Life established a memorial for visitors to leave virtual notes and flowers.
The big news organizations did their best to compete with the raw elegance of user-generated tributes, but their stories seemed trite amid the outpouring of personal expression.
As the world tries to understand what happened in Blacksburg, the conversation should once and for all dispel the “derivative myth” spun by newspapers and news broadcasters. The myth holds that most news of value is created and owned by the newspapers who publish it or by the broadcasters who air it. While there is no denying that news organizations may add value to news by employing large numbers of specialists to gather, create, edit, produce and distribute it, the notion that they either “own’ the news or that they are the original source for it becomes irrelevant, if not absurd, when everyone is media.
Today’s news tumbles through a connected society, spiraling through media, changing as it goes, an organic story with no beginning, middle or end. What seems chaotic is actually a story arc that assumes clarity, context and meaning as it unfolds through a proliferation of sources, many accessible to anyone. The days of once-a-day publishing cycles and scheduled news broadcasts are mere supplements to a continuous stream of news and information available any time through a variety of sources and ubiquitous devices.
With their cell phones, networks and knowledge of place, Virginia Tech students were better prepared to report the events overtaking them than the swarm of professional reporters who descended upon Blacksburg following the shootings. On camera the students appeared more composed, informed and sure-footed than the confused reporters from the big cities.
Community – a word that is now used to describe the digital connections among people, as well as the social and emotional ones – was the word heard time-and-time again from Blacksburg. Extended by personal media, the Blacksburg community quickly expanded to include students on campuses everywhere, as well as a diverse, caring generation connected to each other through digital media.
“Today we are all Hokies,” student leaders proclaimed when asked by reporters how the tragic events would impact Virginia Tech. In a show of support, fellow students at universities across the U.S. created video tributes and memorials on You Tube, some remixing an audio track of Avril Lavigne’s “Keep Holding On” with slideshows of photos grabbed from Flickr. Many of the videos ended with a slide displaying the logo of their universities next to the words “today we are all Hokies.”
Powerful forces were in play in Blacksburg that week. One was the invisible infrastructure of digital networks, wired and wireless, connecting a geographically isolated community to itself and to the world. Another was the connected culture of young adults, savvy content creators and communicators who instinctively use social media as integral parts of their life. When shots rang out, the story unfolded through their devices and their networks.
A new generation of media experts provided an indelible record of what happened on a terrible day in Blacksburg. They have created a lasting tribute to and by its community. The way we are informed will never be the same.
Dale is co-founder emeritus of We Media.