Virginia Tech: Making Meaning of This Tragedy Online

There are many academically interesting aspects of the uses to which online tools are being put as students and professionals struggle to make meaning of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech.

The most visible aspect, one already noted in the popular media, is the use of social networking tools like Facebook and MySpace. Students, alumni, professionals, and others are using these tools to:

  1. Communicate with one another. This use was most visible and common during and immediately after the shootings as students updated their online profiles to let others know they were alive (I almost typed “okay” but that is clearly the wrong word).
  2. Publicly grieve and memorialize the slain. Others have discussed this usage of social networking sites; some time ago, Facebook apparently had to modify their policies to take into account this unexpected behavior.
  3. Make meaning of these events. Of course, this use is intimately tied to and intertwined with the previous use.

Let’s take a closer look at the most obvious example of this search for meaning using online social networking tools: the rapid development of the Wikipedia article. The article was initially created at 10:16 on Monday morning and has rapidly grown since. As of 20:58 CDT on Thursday evening there have been over 6300 edits to the article with each edit occurring 47 seconds apart on average. 1865 different editors have edited the article; 507 of those editors were anonymous, unregistered editors. A quick and thoroughly unscientific review of the edits seems to indicate that just over 10% of the edits, around 650 or so, were acts of vandalism or removal of vandalism.

A video of the article evolving during the first 12 hours:

Our interest lies in how people are using this collaboratively created encyclopedia article in the search for meaning. First, it’s important to remember that like everything else, these actions are taking place in a particular context. In this case, the context is that of a collaboration that aspires to create encyclopedia articles. For those who are unfamiliar with the inner workings of Wikipedia, suffice it to say that the scale, nature, and goals of the projects have led to the development of a maze of rules, policies, guidelines, cultural norms, and formal and informal expectations of user behavior and product quality. Examples of these forces include Civility, Neutral Point of View, No Original Research, and Verifiability. But even within those bounds users have great latitude in constructing articles, particularly brand new articles.

The most visible and easily traced activity is the process by which the name of the article was decided, challenged, and changed (several times). Even with the guidance of the Wikipedia Manual of Style, there were still many minor decisions to make about the title regarding the possible inclusion of the year “2007,” word order, capitalization, etc. However, the major decision was to use the word “shooting” or “massacre” to describe the events. Although the decision to adopt “massacre” was ostensibly made as a reflection of the media coverage (the “common name“), many of the initial (and ongoing; very few things are ever settled or beyond debate and discussion in Wikipedia) arguments were clearly subjective judgments about the unfolding events and details.

The choice of details to include or exclude in the article also reflect not only Wikipedia policies but the judgment of more than 1300 individual editors. Wikipedia’s notability guidelines provide some guidance but the ultimate decisions lie with those editors. For example, do the questions and arguments about gun control raised by this tragedy belong in this article? What about the various offers of assistance from other universities – if only some of them are to be included (as it would be impossible to include them all), which ones are “notable” enough to make the cut? What about the victims – are they inherently notable and should they each have their own article? Or would such articles be memorials and thus unenyclopedic (many editors argue that “Wikipedia is not a memorial.”)? How can we place these events into historical context? Do we rank school shootings and tragedies or is a historical comparison inappropriate and impossible? And how many of these issues can and should we decide right now given the incomplete facts and high emotions? Many of these questions are clearly fundamental questions in making meaning of these events, even if they are wrapped in the guise of creating an encyclopedia article and guided by Wikipedia rules and customs.

Let’s briefly return to Facebook and MySpace. The positive and supportive uses of these tools (communication, grief sharing, support, etc.) are being widely documented. Not as widely documented, though, are the expressions of negative emotions like anger and hatred. A quick search turns up the following public Facebook groups, all featuring a prominent photo of the shooter:

Although such expressions are understandable and a natural part of the grieving process, I am a bit concerned about the permanent nature of the electronic media being used to document negative but (hopefully!) temporary emotions. Given that these records are publicly accessible, archivable, replicable, and searchable, I hope that others who view these groups and other similar expressions of negative emotion (including the members themselves) will keep in mind these factors that make transient expressions of emotion take on a permanent nature in this context (and when removed from this context).

Of course, there are those who are exploiting this tragedy via online tools. For example, an a Facebook group entitled “UWF praying for Virginia Tech 4.16.2007,” a user took the opportunity to push her own group and political agenda:

Facebook VT UWF message

That’s classy, huh? At least she’s not trying to directly profit from this tragedy like these scum.

Let’s end on a positive note. Like others, I deal with tragedy by trying to learn from it. Karine Joly evidently feels the same way because she has been writing about the lessons administrators, particularly those in communications, can learn from these events. It’s probably a bit too early for some to step back from these events to objectively analyze our reactions to learn from them. But when you’re ready, Karine’s got some good advice to share.

(Update: Wikipedia stats updated on Thursday, April 19, at 21:15 CDT, mostly to reflect a more accurate calculation of the average time between edits – I found the setting that allows me to view the exact second that edits were made which obviously allow a much more precise calculation)

(Update 2: YouTube video added. First seen (by me) on the Wikipedia article’s Talk page.)