Image: Facebook groups
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More than 500 groups have been created relating to Virginia Tech on the Facebook social-networking Web site. Many of them have been created at other universities to voice support for Virginia Tech in the wake of this week's shootings.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/19/2007 9:14:31 AM ET 2007-04-19T13:14:31

The way students and teachers passed along information during the Virginia Tech massacre — via cellphone videos and campus-watching Webcams, via text messages and Web bulletin boards — demonstrates how the wired world has changed in the 21st century, one of the prophets of the new age says.

Back in 2002, technology guru Howard Rheingold predicted that the telephone, the Internet and the personal computer would merge into a media form that would be used in ways their inventors could not have conceived, in a book titled "Smart Mobs."

"'Smart Mobs' was about the future,” Rheingold told MSNBC.com. “Now we’re living it.”

The media methods employed during this week's crisis broke new ground — and undoubtedly saved lives in the process. Virginia Tech's innovations quickly became incorporated into the Internet lore surrounding Monday's horrific killings:

  • The first word about the shootings came in campuswide e-mails, and the whole ordeal was chronicled via Weblogs, photo-sharing Web sites and cellphone videos.
  • Robotics professor Dennis Hong clipped a Webcam outside his window to monitor the exterior crime scene and stream the live video over the Internet to a group of his students trapped inside — a view that let them know when it was safe to get out.
  • Some students turned to cellphone-based text services and instant-messaging software, communicating from their hiding places to the outside world. "I'm on lockdown under a desk right now," sophomore Laura Ann Spaventa wrote in a dialogue with her family reprinted by Newsweek.
  • Survivors of the ordeal broadcast their condition — or the tragic news about their classmates — by posting notes on social-networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Virginia Tech's students likely benefited by living in one of the country's most Internet-savvy communities: Blacksburg, Va. In cooperation with the university and the phone company, Blacksburg offered dial-up network services to the town's residents back in 1993-1994, when the Internet was still widely known as the noncommercial NSFNet, said William Sanders, a Virginia Tech employee who is director of Blacksburg Electronic Village.

"We really were the first community on the Internet before it was the Internet," he told MSNBC.com.

Today, the online trend continues: A couple of years ago, Virginia Tech began requiring incoming students to have laptop computers, and wireless service is widely available on campus.

Rheingold, who now teaches classes in journalism and digital media at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, said the Net-native generation is just starting to come into its own.

"The digital natives who are the college students these days don't remember a time when they didn't have mobile phones and the Internet," he said.

But there are ample precedents for the kind of multimedia innovation seen this week in Blacksburg: Rheingold pointed to the role of cellphone texting in 2001's "People Power II" revolt in the Philippines, as well as the 2003 "flash mob" phenomenon.

"We also saw a lot of activity around both the Asian tsunami [in 2004] and Hurricane Katrina [in 2005] in terms of emergent collective response from citizens to natural disasters," he said. "We had people organizing to get help."

Rheingold said the Facebook phenomenon provided a relatively new means to facilitate "the instant notification of your social network." As more college students add their profiles to such social-networking sites, the utility of the networks rises accordingly — particularly to pass the word about the personal impact of a mass event.

"Rather than calling everyone you know, one call at a time, you put a note up and tell everyone at once," he said.

There are potential perils, of course. For example, last year Facebook introduced a feature called News Feed that passed along reports about changes in your personal profile to your social network. Some feared that News Feed could encourage cyber-stalking, and 700,000 users signed onto an online petition in protest — leading Facebook to scale back the feature .

"Facebook users revolted, and within hours they organized and they took it back," Rheingold said admiringly.

The Virginia Tech tragedy has pointed up yet another challenge for all those Net-savvy students: The "mainstream media" are beginning to swoop down on what was once a pristine preserve for the college community — and zeroing in on survivors of the ordeal. One Live Journal thread on the subject was headlined, "Oh how the media whores circle like vultures."

Rheingold said the friction that arises when what were thought to be personal Web pages come into the media spotlight "is probably an artifact of the newness of the media." Even now, the realms of social-networking sites, blogs and podcasts are blending into the traditional media forms of news stories, radio and TV. As the trend continues, Net citizens will have to accept their occasional brush with fame — or infamy.

"Eventually people will realize that you have only three readers of your blog, until something goes viral," Rheingold said.

As smart mobs enter the mainstream, many of the changes in the flow of information are  evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But sometimes, it takes a major news event like the Virginia Tech drama to demonstrate graphically just how much things have changed.

"Events quite often are the quantum leap," Rheingold said.

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