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Social Media Responses to the Virginia Tech Shooting

The next ICA 2010 speakers are Deanna and Timothy Sellnow, whose focus is on the use of social media in crisis events - here, the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Such events are cosmology episodes, where understanding is lost, and people ask where am I, what happened, and who can help me understand what happened. They need to rebuild understanding through the process of sensemaking - and this moment of cosmology must be dissected to reduce uncertainty. Social media - especially Facebook - had a prominent role in this.

The study applied chaos theory to the understanding of crisis events - a bifurcation here appears at the moment of acute shock; fractals of information are then assembled into a pattern of understanding; shared values act as strange attractors that are used as crystallisation points for understanding in the process. The study examined a random sample of 40 Facebook groups dealing with the massacre (some 30,000 members in all) and explored the 1,100 postings - key themes here included (in order of prominence) religious messages, support, sympathy, efforts to organise, memorials, questions, backlash, OSC (general interaction in the online social community), guilt, and attacks on the shooter.

OSCs function as strange attractors bringing people together, then. Over 90% of postings were about positive values; there were very few negative attacks, and even the few posts attacking the shooter were countered by the community. Self-organisation was limited to self-expression, though - 40% of posts were organising and memorialising, but there was little conversation around these; and indeed, only some 5% of the 30,000-odd members posted comments. So, OSCs resolve chaos in crisis events, but there is little use for them in organising to prevent future crises, and this was also highlighted in comments.

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