They were created to help people stay in touch, but social networking websites like Facebook have taken on outsized roles as clearinghouses of information in times of tragedy.
At Virginia Tech in 2007, Northern Illinois University in 2008 and now at Wesleyan University, Facebook and other sites have been sources of instantaneous news and platforms for people to share thoughts.
At Wesleyan, friends set up a page on Facebook.com dedicated to Johanna Justin-Jinich, the 21-year-old student who was shot and killed Wednesday as she worked in the cafe at Broad Street Books near the university's Middletown campus. Stephen Morgan, the man they believe shot her, surrendered to police Thursday night.
By Thursday evening, the page had more than 425 members. Those who knew Justin-Jinich reminisced, while others offered words of comfort or more general thoughts.
"Pre-Facebook, something like this would happen and you might be limited to the people in your dorm or people you can reach by phone or the people you can reach by e-mail," said Susannah Fox, associate director of digital strategy for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a Washington, D.C., research group studying the effects of the Internet on daily life. "But with social technologies, you can reach lots of people all at the same time, and it makes it so easy to share information and share feelings."
Fox, who graduated from Wesleyan in 1992, said she learned of the shooting on Facebook.
Wesleyan students have been told to stay in their dorm rooms while police continue to search for Morgan, which makes social networks even more important.
"This is a situation where social media could be of even more benefit because they're not able to meet face to face," said Sarah Vieweg, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado studying how technology connects people in disaster and crisis situations. "People are using them in ways that maybe the designers didn't mean for them to be used, but it allows people to deal with this tragic process that for Wesleyan is still ongoing."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times