RealTime IT News

Community Grief And Traces Left Behind Online

The Virginia Tech massacre isn't "news" on Facebook and across the social Web. It's reality.

Looking at pictures of shooting victims Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher, once uploaded to represent themselves to their friends and classmates online, the comfortable distance a headline can create collapses.

On Facebook, Clark and Hilscher's profiles are still linked to groups and to friends. There's a photo on Facebook of Hilscher wearing three hats on her head. There's one of Clark in his band uniform, sunglasses propped on the bill of his cap.

These are traces left behind online, and they turn Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher from names in print into people who updated their profiles and messaged their friends and uploaded cheesy party pictures.

They existed before. Now an online community mourns their sudden loss after yesterday's massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, which ended in the deaths of 33 people, including the shooter.

There are just under 39,000 Facebook members who identify themselves as part of the Virginia Tech network. And just as the community that walks in Blacksburg, Va., goes from prayer service to candlelight vigil, so too does the community mourn online.

They're forming groups and holding discussions and posting pictures of those who lost their lives. They are all changing their profile pictures to an icon of a black ribbon and the letters "VT."

One group, Remembering Ryan "Stack" Clark, hosts 24 photos and 26 wall posts, which are messages from group members. Amy Kaplan writes:

"such a sassy-pants.... Stack could always be counted on to shout my name when he saw me, or ANYONE he knew (and he knew EVERYONE)...."

Sarah Chuba writes to Clark as though he could read her message:

"Ryan - just wanted to say that I know I havent been the best at keeping in touch the past couple of years being in school and all. But, I also want to say that you were very inspiring not only in helping me to build my confidence, but also in getting me the courage to get here. You're spirit will live on in the lives of all those that you touched - you are an amazing soul and have blessed so many with your presence and grace. Thank you."

Another group is called "Why Emily Hilscher was cooler than me," and another is called "VT Unite." There are dozens more, including one group called "I'm ok at VT," created to "Let all your friends know you are ok today."

This kind of reporting -- first-hand accounts messaged between first-hand witnesses, digital photos and videos taken with cell phones -- like the traces left online by the dead, put yesterday's tragedy only as far away as your last e-mail or instant message.

There are no story leads or nut graphs in the messages students posted to each other to stay informed. "Erin Peterson has passed away. Please say a prayer for her family," is all one message reads.

One student posted the classes being held on the floor the shooting took place. Another message:

"To The Faculty, Staff, and Students of the CEE Department. It is with great regret and personal sadness that I report to you that I have received information that indicates that we have tragically lost several members of our Department as a result of the shootings that took place earlier today."

There isn't any clever editing in the videos students posted to LiveLeak.com and YouTube. It's just footage of a gray spring day with steady popping gunfire sounding in the background.

Photos students uploaded to Facebook in the hours after the shootings to a group called "Campus Shooting Photos" feature none of the composed mourning and careful lighting captured by images on NYTimes.com. Police carry the wounded and students hide behind cars.

For all of us -- Facebook profile updaters, e-mailers, message posters, and Internet users alike -- it's reality.