Mourning Tech on Facebook

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Mourning Tech on Facebook

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If you don't know what Facebook is, you've probably heard of it, especially if you have children in high school or college. It's one of those social networking sites that parents, lawmakers and educators discuss when they're concerned about cyber bullying or child predators. But after the Virginia Tech tragedy on April 16, the site truly brought the world closer together in the most remarkable scene of solidarity and compassion I have ever seen online.

Within a day of the shootings, the most common symbol on Facebook was a combination black hope ribbon and maroon "VT" logo. Most Facebook users have default profile photos of themselves posing with friends, at parties, on vacation or with their significant others; almost overnight, most were replaced with the Hokie hope ribbon. It was heartwarming to see students from across the world join together in mourning - e-mourning, you could say.

Many Facebook users posted on their profiles or in common-interest group bulletin boards the Hokie hope ribbon accompanied with their school's mascot or coat of arms with the phrase "Today we are all Hokies."

And we all certainly were.

Facebook usually is used to keep in touch with friends, post and share photos, organize and publicize events and find other people with common interests, and all of those features were used in the days after the tragedy to report breaking news and new information, organize vigils and charities, post photo illustrations and sketches commemorating the shootings and even share poems Facebook users composed. Only a handful of users have discussed politics; it seems most e-mourners are first and foremost focused on their grief and sympathy, and how they can help.

In the first frantic and confusing hours and days after the tragedy, one group was dedicated to posting updated information on the event and its aftermath, and others sprang up declaring "Nationwide Orange and Maroon Day," "April 16, 2007 - A Moment of Silence" and "Prayer Group for Va. Tech," for example.

When the media reported that the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. - a cult of hatemongers who have picketed military funerals with inflammatory banners - would show up at Tech victims' funerals, a protest Facebook group emerged to organize and voice opposition. The congregation eventually did rescind their plan to protest the Tech funerals, but not before the Facebook group's membership swelled to more than 59,000.

Perhaps the most touching Facebook group I've discovered was "All Schools Unite for Virginia Tech," created by a University of Tennessee student. The goal is to tally one volunteer representative from 1,000 different schools and then engrave those names on a plaque that will be presented to Tech; I'm representing my alma mater, the University of Delaware. Students from schools I've never heard of, even schools in Canada and high schools from across America, have joined and shown their support. More than 725 colleges and high schools are represented on the list thus far.

Facebook groups also have been dedicated to the victims as a place for users to share funeral and vigil information and messages about - and to - their lost friends. I didn't know any of the victims, but I did join a group dedicated to Mary Read, since she attended my high school in Annandale, Va. Mary was remembered most by friends for her friendly, heartwarming smile, and many of her friends have replaced their Facebook profile photos with photos of Mary. "Look Mary, there are so many people that love you," one person wrote on the message board, referring to Mary's profile on The New York Times Web site. "I love you and can't wait to see you again in Heaven."

As Blacksburg tries to return to a sense of normalcy, so is Facebook. Many users have reverted to their former profile photos, and Tech commemoration groups are being updated less and less.

But like the gravestones at Arlington or memorials in the nation's capitol, the posted messages of compassion and heartache on Facebook will always be there; the photos of America's college students at vigils and donning orange and maroon in a show of solemn solidarity and hope will always be there; the photos of empathetic banners signed by countless students in a time of mourning will always be there; and the photos of memorials, flowers and notes on Tech's Drillfield will always be there.

Facebook helped to document history that week, and none of us will forget when we were all Hokies.

Mike Fox is a copy editor with the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier.

Originally published on Sunday, April 29 in the Bristol Herald Courier, of Bristol, Virginia.

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Mike Fox

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2007-05-02

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Mike Fox

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eng

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Mike Fox, "Mourning Tech on Facebook," in The April 16 Archive, Item #88, http://www.april16archive.org/items/show/88 (accessed October 25, 2014).