Social Networking as News: Examining the 2010 UT Gunman Incident

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.

Facebook and UT

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.

Off to Ithaca

As I am leaving for college, I originally intended this post to be a reminiscence of and a goodbye to Austin, but when I tried to write it, the words would not easily come out. Therefore, this is not solely a farewell to Austin, but an anticipation of where I’m heading next.

Austin has been my home for 10 years, almost exactly. We moved here from Greenville, South Carolina in September 2000, and it is now late August 2010.

Even though I wasn’t born in Austin, I consider Austin to be my primary hometown. Besides relatives, nearly all the people I know I have met in Austin. I was too young to remember people from Greenville or earlier places.

I also received most of my primary and secondary education here in Austin, from third grade straight through twelfth. I attended Forest North Elementary School, Laurel Mountain Elementary School, Canyon Vista Middle School, and Westwood High School (’10).

And I almost continued this with University of Texas (’14):

UT TowerYet, I chose Cornell University instead. I have nothing against UT. In fact, logically I should have gone with UT, for it was a little bit cheaper, and I was in two honors programs (Dean’s Scholars and Plan II) to boot.

But for me, it lacked only one thing: fresh air. Don’t get me wrong—Austin is one of the cleanest cities in the nation, and is reputed one of the best places to live. What I mean by “fresh air” is, I have lived in Austin for 10 years, and it was time for a change. Between familiarity and uncertainty, I had to choose the latter:

Cornell TowerIt was certainly not an easy choice. Since most of the people I know are in Austin, I would miss them all. Furthermore, no one else from my high school class is going to Cornell (though I do know a couple of people in a different grade). And from my high school, a million (okay, more like at least 50) people in my class are going to UT. So those are the numbers. And, oh yeah: Winter? Snow? What’s that? 😀

We’re flying tomorrow morning. Today is my last day in Austin. I feel like I have a lot more things to say, but I don’t know what order, so I’ll just make a list:

  • I’m going to miss all those “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers.
  • An online shoutout to the Westwood Class of ’10!
  • And to the Cornell Class of ’14!
  • I am moving from a liberal city to an apparently even more liberal town.
  • Ithaca, at 7.92%, has the highest percentage of residents holding Ph.D.s in America. [Source: Forbes on MSNBC]
  • Perhaps Austin and Ithaca won’t be too different. Who knows?
  • I still have some final packing to do, and my room is nowhere near clean.
  • We’ve said so many goodbyes in the last few days as we’re going off to college. I would love nothing better than to say goodbye to all my friends in person, but that is obviously impossible. To all those whom I didn’t catch in person: Goodbye! And to those whom I did: Goodbye again!
  • Even this morning, the UT McCombs School of Business entrepreneur-in-residence Gary Hoover commented on this blog out of the blue, and gave me a goodbye present. That was very pleasant, thank you.
  • This blog WILL continue to be updated as I become a college student.
  • Cleaning out my room and finding old things is creating a lot of nostalgia. Right now there are about 253 things on the floor, so I’d best get back to cleaning. My next post shall come from Ithaca. 🙂

College Interviews Part 2

College Interviews Part 1 contained interviews with MIT, University of Chicago, Yale, and Harvard. They are described with much more detail than the ones in this post.

This post contains interviews with Carnegie Mellon, University of Texas at Austin (twice, for Dean’s Scholars scholarship interviews), and Princeton.

Carnegie Mellon

Interviewer: Eric Stuckey
Setting: Saturday, 1/16/10, 1 pm – 2:15 pm, Genuine Joe’s (West Anderson Lane)

The interview can be summarized in two words: Computer science.

As of my writing this, a week has passed since this interview. I actually cannot remember some of the specific questions that he asked me; perhaps this is because it was for the most part a fascinating conversation. I got to the coffeehouse about 10 minutes early and bought two coffees; he arrived about 5 minutes late, and declined the coffee because it contained caffeine, and went for hot chocolate instead. So, I had two cups of coffee for myself.

He first asked me why I was interested in CMU. I mentioned how I knew a few Westwood students who went there, and how its high rankings in the computer science departments caught my eye. It seemed like an interview for only five or so minutes. The remaining hour and some was just a nice and mostly intellectual discusison.

We talked a lot about computer science, and CMU’s involvement in it. One point of discussion was the self-driving car, or rather, CMU’s pioneering of it. In the mid-1990s CMU designed, built, and tested such a thing. That’s right, in the 1990s! I guess I didn’t do my research; I thought engineers were just starting to work on that.

In 2005-6, there were two competitions for a self-driving car. CMU won the first, and placed second the next year. However, the first-place team, Stanford, included someone who had just been on the CMU team the year before. In other words, CMU is a leader in the advancement of computer technology.

We went on to other topics in computer science, and he really emphasized CMU’s strengths in the field. I asked about the rankings in particular—why is CMU ranked so high in computer science, i.e. what exactly does it have? The answer was simply two things: good students and good faculty.

For a while we discussed the intellectual realm in general. Computer science itself, even though a relatively new field, has expanded considerably and is now a fairly broad field.

UT

These two are scholarship interviews, not admissions interviews. They are both pretty short, so I will not elaborate further.

Interviewer: Alan Cline
Setting: Friday, 1/22/10, 2 pm – 2:15 pm, On campus

He first mentioned that my school, Westwood HS, had more students in Dean’s Scholars than any other school. We discussed my IB Extended Essay on a modification of the Riemann zeta function.

Interviewer: Jim Vick
Setting: Friday, 1/22/10, 2:15 pm – 2:30 pm, On campus

Similar to the previous one. The main point of discussion was the Riemann zeta function.

Princeton

Interviewer: Amy Mitchell (’77)
Setting: Saturday, 1/23/10, 3 pm – 4:15 pm, Starbucks (Research and Anderson Mill)

This was a pretty amazing interview. We covered an extensive range of topics with a lot of depth. It was very conversation-like. It felt similar to the Yale interview.