Students Turn to Social Networking Sites for Info


April 16, 2007— -- E-mail, cell phones and social networking sites became invaluable tools Monday as students and school administrators at Virginia Tech frantically tried to communicate with one another after the early-morning shootings on campus.

Word of the shootings and a warning to stay inside spread throughout the campus by e-mail and automated voice mails.

"A shooting incident occurred … earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating," the e-mail said, according to Alex Mengel, a student at the school. "The university community is urged to be cautious and contact VT police if you observe anything suspicious or with any information on the case."

Mengel told ABC News that she has been using the social networking site to stay in contact with her friends because "it's hard to get in touch with people by phone."

There was a major lag in time between that first e-mail at 9:26 a.m. and others that gave students a better idea of the severity.

Thirty minutes after the first message, a second one warned student to "stay put." Nearly an hour later, a third e-mail said classes were canceled and told students to lock their doors.

It wasn't until 10:52 a.m. that students were told about "multiple shootings," according to summaries passed on by a student.

Anna Woodford, a sophomore at the school, told ABC News that she was still in her room and "we got all the e-mails before I had to go to class."

She reported that the Internet, e-mail and phone lines were very clogged.

Jeffrey T. Hancock, a professor of communications at Cornell University, said such networking sites are important because they allow you "to get in touch with the people who are in your social network and matter the most."

Hancock said the university could have done a better job in its e-mail to students but "it probably reflects the school's lack of information."

He said he imagines that the administration at the school was also having trouble understanding what was happening, but that they still probably could have done a better job of communicating with students.

Josh Wargo, an engineering student told ABC that he got the e-mails "but my impression was it was prank or nothing serious."

For Michelle Billman, student general manager of WUVT the campus radio station, news came through a text message.

"The only reason we knew was because someone got a text message. … No one was there saying, 'This is what's going on.'"

With the systems jammed, many people turned to social networking sites to try to connect with friends, family and loved ones.

An 18-year-old woman in California asked people on if they knew any of the six people she'd listed and asked them to instant message her.

One user on suggested that all others update their profiles to say "I'm OK."

"That way all of us can see in the feed that you are OK," Carlos Fernandez wrote. "It is difficult to be out of Blacksburg and get information in. We all have dear friends that we want to hear from so make sure to pass this along to everyone you know."'

Several people online also expressed anger at school officials for sending out an e-mail but not canceling classes. For the most part, however, the comments posted online were from people sharing their prayers and sympathies.

Within hours, one 26-year-old woman from Maryland wrote: "My thoughts and prayers are with all y'all at VA Tech. … I can't even imagine the immense loss you've experienced today, and the difficult days ahead."

"I am from Texas," wrote one 23-year-old woman. "I just wanted send my prayer for y'all. People Killed and thier [sic] Family families are in my thoughts."

There were even a number of attacks on the media, many — including ABC News — which were using the sites to contact people.

One apparent student wrote Monday afternoon "and if this is where all the news broadcasters are contacting me from stop doing it."

There were also lots of warnings out there for people to only share firsthand information and to stop spreading rumors.

The university itself posted a message giving families and students a location to reunite, a schedule for a convocation Tuesday and information on counseling.

The general feeling online though was utter shock and wishes of good luck.

"OMG! [shorthand for Oh My God] Who would have thought that VT would be a target of domestic terrorism??? My thoughts and prayers go out to the VT community," wrote one 27-year-old from Virginia. "I knew lots of friends and co-workers who were HOKIES. Hopefully the media will shead [sic] some light on this tragic situation SOON!!"

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