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Technology Helped Virginia Tech Students Connect After Tragedy

April 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: As events in Blacksburg, Va., unfolded Monday, the world saw this: video shot with a cell phone, taken by Virginia Tech student Jamal Albarghouti. The footage, run repeatedly on CNN, allowed the audience to hear the gunshots from Norris Hall, where 31 people, including the gunman, died.

CNN anchors then interviewed Albarghouti, referring to him as “our I-reporter,” part of a project encouraging viewers to submit what’s known as citizen journalism.

JAMAL ALBARGHOUTI, Virginia Tech Student and Reporter: I knew this was something way more serious. It was then when I decided to use my camera.

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent big stories from the 2004 tsunami, to the 2005 London subway bombings, TV news organizations have relied more and more on contributions from nonprofessional eyewitnesses.

In Blacksburg, ABC broadcast these cell phone images taken inside Norris Hall. Martin Clancy is senior producer for ABC News Digital.

MARTIN CLANCY, ABC News Digital: Well, reporting has gone beyond shoe leather and phone calls. This is a much more efficient way to reach a lot of people, to gather a lot of information. Granted, it’s a lot more work to verify it, to bring it up to broadcast or publishing standards.

But this is a really much more efficient way to gather information and to get input and to discover perspectives you didn’t even know existed. I think there’s no end to this. We used to play with getting e-mails from viewers. What started as a trickle of e-mails has become a flood. What is now a trickle of video is going to become, I predict, a flood of video.

'Everybody is a storyteller'

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, events in Blacksburg, during and after the shootings, have provided a case study in how new technology is changing the way news is covered and disseminated and how people experience and share such events.

Much of that has taken place on computer screens. Andrew Nachison heads a think-tank called iFOCOS, the Institute for the Connected Society.

ANDREW NACHISON, Co-Founder, iFOCOS: The story is unfolding all around us. Marshall McLuhan used the notion of media being acoustic, and you really get a sense of that today, that everybody is a storyteller. The information is coming at us from many different sources. And the Blacksburg shooting, for me, at least, was a really poignant example of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many students, for example, first learned that something was going on from e-mails sent by the university. The first, at 9:26 a.m., "Subject: Shooting on Campus," notifying students and telling them to "stay attuned to www.vt.edu."

There are questions now as to whether text messages sent directly to cell phones might have been an even more effective means of communication.

The Internet became a prime place for people to get the news out of Blacksburg. The college newspaper, the Collegiate Times, scooped the major media, getting the story online, right after the first shot rang out, and staying on it non-stop ever since.

The 104-year-old paper received up to 53 million hits by early Monday afternoon, forcing the site down for a time. It also listed some of the dead early Tuesday morning, prompting the New York Times Web site and other news outlets to link to the Collegiate Times.

Bigger news media sites were also a huge source of information as the story developed. At MSNBC.com, overall traffic hit an all-time high Monday with over 15 million unique users.

'Storytelling is exploding'

JEFFREY BROWN: News Web sites only told part of the story, and that, says Andrew Nachison, is the larger point. The Virginia Tech shootings are emblematic of how stories are being told and shared in all kinds of new ways.

ANDREW NACHISON: Young people do this intuitively and naturally without thinking about it, without a sense of wonder, when they send a text message, or they send an e-mail, or they shoot a video, or they post a message to their friends on MySpace.

But it's not just young people. That's the exaggeration. Technology is allowing people to share information, and to share feelings, and to tell stories in a way that just wasn't possible before.

And the big story is not that we've got all this wonderful, fabulous technology making life better. The big story is that storytelling is exploding by virtue of this technology.

Developing memorials online

JEFFREY BROWN: In the aftermath of 9/11, loved ones left photographs of the missing around lower Manhattan. Now they went online to instantly generated, student-driven sites like vttragedy.com and incident.com.

Large social networking sites like MySpace were filled with heartbreaking messages on the personal pages of those who were killed. The desperation played out over and over in real time.

Ross Alameddine was one of students killed in Norris Hall. He last logged onto his MySpace page on Sunday. The next day, his friends and family were messaging him here to try to get reassurance that he was OK. As they learned the news, the messages became instant memorials.

Facebook included more information about the victims and information about the tragedy. Students posted, "I'm OK at VT" to let people know they were not among the victims.

Planet Blacksburg sprung up overnight to try to provide information to the greater Virginia Tech and Blacksburg community.

An America Online user who had been a classmate of the killer posted some of his violent writings from a drama class for all the world to see. On YouTube, a homemade, freshly cut video was posted called "Virginia Tech Tribute," with the theme of "Today We Are All Hokies."

This new world of storytelling raises many questions for Andrew Nachison and others who study it.

ANDREW NACHISON: What's news and what's journalism? Those are professional definitions that help us define work we do as professionals or not as professionals, but storytelling is much broader than that. And a lot of what we're seeing is reflecting the emotional impact of this experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: The only thing not in question is that, as the tragedy at Virginia Tech shows, new forms of storytelling are developing before our eyes.