Almost immediately after the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech University on April 16, Virginia Tech students created an “I’m OK” page on Facebook to let one another and their loved ones know that they survived. Other students posted photos and cell phone videos on their own sites, or shared them just hours after the shootings with news organizations.

Thanks to the portability and speed of today’s technology, the students’ shots are likely to become some of the “defining images” of the tragedy, says Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which monitors high-tech culture.

And nowhere, she says, has the impact of the internet been seen more than on social networking sites, most often frequented by young people.

“What better place to mourn someone than a place that they themselves build to express who they are, and a place where the deceased and his or her friends may have spent a great deal of time interacting?” Lenhart asks.

Since April 16, there has been a nonstop flood of postings on the popular Facebook student site, on MySpace and LiveJournal, and on personal blogs–expressing everything from grief to anger to confusion.

Jesse Connolly, a 21-year-old from Lynn, Mass., made a posting April 17 on the Myspace page of Ross Alameddine, one of the Virginia Tech students who was killed. The pair worked together last summer at an electronics store in their home state.

“If only you were here to read this Ross … You’d know what an imaginative, intelligent, compassionate, and most of all hysterically funny human being you were, and how appreciative I am to have spent last summer working with such a great kid,” Connolly wrote. “My every thought is with you and your family.”

Even before names of the victims were officially released, a few students created Facebook memorial pages for some of the dead–though others worried that it was too soon, since family and friends were still being notified.

There are myriad other ways the internet continues to shape the grieving process.

In addition to using the university’s web site to communicate with the world, Virginia Tech officials planned to set up a site where families of the victims could post photos.

TechSideline.com, a site for Virginia Tech sports fans, also quickly morphed into a meeting place where students, family, and friends could communicate–especially when phones were jammed.

And as a show of support, many students, including scores from other colleges, replaced their Facebook profile photos with a Virginia Tech logo shrouded in a black ribbon.

Patti Jacobs, a junior at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., was among them. Saddened by the shootings, she went searching for memorial pages on Facebook April 17.

Jacobs was alarmed when she also came across several pages that included hateful, sometimes racist remarks toward shooter Cho Seung-Hui, other Asians, and his family.

“This is not about just one guy and his problems,” Jacobs wrote. “Yes–he alone is accountable for all the damage and pain caused yesterday–but the reason for this was not his race, his child-rearing by his family, or his girlfriend breaking up with him. …

“How much of our society is accountable as well?”

Some of the hateful postings were removed, likely after other Facebook users flagged them–a process of communal self-editing used on many sites.

Those kinds of entries are a product of the open nature of the internet, where rumors and inaccuracies also can linger.

Such was the case for 23-year-old Wayne Chiang, who was mistaken by some as the shooter–partly because his Facebook profile includes references to graduating from Virginia Tech and several photos of him with his gun collection.

At first, Chiang says he “played along with it” on his personal web page, partly to see how much money he could make, since payment from the ads he places on his site are based on the number of hits the site gets. (He claims he’s going to donate the proceeds to a fund for the shooting victims at his alma mater.)

Chiang decided to post the truth after he received death threats. But many of those who thought he was the shooter had the same question: Why did the killings happen?

“I always knew the internet was very powerful, just not to this extent,” Chiang, who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., said in a telephone interview.

“People just want to blame it on somebody in order to understand the situation. It’s completely understandable.”

Despite technology’s darker side, Lenhart at Pew says the help the internet provides during tragedies like these is undeniable.

“No longer do you need to drive to a headstone in a cemetery or a roadside flower-strewn cross, or fly across the country to a funeral,” she says, “but you can log on and express yourself, and interact with others who are feeling the same thing.”

Contacted through his MySpace page, Connolly, the 21-year-old in Massachusetts, agreed with that sentiment.

“Reading everyone’s thoughts and communicating with friends makes that lonely, empty feeling inside a little bit easier to deal with,” he says, “knowing you’re not alone.”

Links:

Virginia Tech web page: “Tragedy at Virginia Tech”
http://www.vt.edu/tragedy

Pew Internet & American Life Project
http://www.pewinternet.org

American Psychological Association (APA) Help Center
http://www.apahelpcenter.org