Yesterday, at the University of Texas at Austin, a gunman armed with an assault rifle committed suicide after firing several shots in the Perry-Castañeda Library. Thankfully, no one else was killed or injured.
I was informed of this in real time when numerous Facebook statuses from my UT friends began appearing on my news feed. (I’m from Austin, so I know plenty of people there, and I am deeply glad that y’all are safe.) Even without seeing video footage or any official report or news article about the event, I knew instantly about something happening 1400 miles away. Certainly instant communication isn’t a new technology. But widespread use of social networking is. As I began to wonder, I realized Facebook was giving something much different from what the conventional mass media would.
This is what I realized. I wasn’t seeing news articles on my news feed. I was seeing personal reactions from people at the scene, things that might be considered unprofessional to air on TV, such as how several people said they were happy that classes would be canceled that day (and, to be clear, they were happy for that fact alone, not for the cause behind it). It was also different because I was receiving information from people I know very well, instead of from a bureaucracy.
Granted, there were plenty of news articles appearing online within an hour, but the real question is, What role did online social networks play in yesterday’s incident? For me, I felt a very close, personal connection with the distant event because of whom I received the news from.
There are other factors that I felt connected too, e.g., that I’ve studied in the Perry-Castañeda Library a few times and that UT is my hometown college, but even so, this incident seemed so different from anything before, especially in how it was presented to me. If I had merely watched news coverage of this on TV or read an article, it would be different as I would have been one step more removed from the event. Social networking is not only decreasing the physical distance between us (allowing us to communicate via “broadcast” across large distances), it is decreasing the bureaucratization of media. Perhaps we are more connected, not just statistically, but genuinely.
Will the personal social-networked media, e.g. Facebook and Twitter, replace more “official” ones such as news networks and (online) newspapers? Probably not soon, but we may see a gradual transition. Already, online news sites are increasingly personal. With Google News you can select whatever topics you want to read articles on. The New York Times and CNN are increasing blog-like: they have lists for most recent and most popular articles, corresponding to most recent and most popular posts.
Is networked news necessarily better? Would I rather get news from Facebook or the Associated Press? I’d say official news, but then again, Facebook is less than a decade old, and it has plenty of room for evolution.
I’ve neglected the role of social networking within the incident. Therefore, a question to UT kids and all other Austinites: By what method did you first find out about the gunman? Some possible answers: Facebook/Twitter, email, text, call, TV, word of mouth, sight (you saw the police), personal (the police told you something), etc.