In the wake of recent school shootings, communication researchers explore why people use Facebook to connect and pay their respects.
In 2007, Peter Joseph Gloviczki (Ph.D., 2012) noticed a trend. After two people in his life died much too soon, he saw that people were turning to Facebook to talk about their grief and express condolences. Facebook Groups were forming and messages were being written on walls, often within moments of the tragedy.
As a graduate student at SJMC, Gloviczki wondered how people react to tragedy on social media in new and old ways? What characteristics of social media allow them to grieve?
So he dove into his dissertation research about the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech and how individuals engaged with social media to discuss the event and its aftermath. According to Gloviczki's dissertation, the group reached 185 postings within 36 hours of the shootings. At one time it had more than 3,000 members.
"Virigina Tech was so significant because Facebook was so college-oriented at that time," said assistant professor Shayla Thiel-Stern, an SJMC faculty member and Gloviczki's co-adviser. "Most of the users were college students and the fact that this shooting took place on a college campus, it really spoke to Facebook users."
The connection between school shootings and social media is again relevant in the wake of the recent attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where a lone gunman shot 20 first-graders and six teachers on Dec. 14, 2012. Within moments, Facebook groups started to form, including "R.I.P. Sandy Hook Elementary School Children," which has more than 1.4 million members, and "In Loving Memory of Sandy Hook Elementary Victims," with more than 357,000 members.
Turning to social media in times of tragedy is now a common coping mechanism. "It really has become a natural thing to do," said Thiel-Stern. "When tragedy happens and when people are already accustomed to connecting on Facebook, it seems like the default thing to do is to tell someone about it and have a conversation about it."
Like those now created after so many tragedies, the Sandy Hook memorial pages serve as a way for users to create a community around the event. Members share posts, photos, drawings, videos and online memorials. "Through all of the sadness in the aftermath of the event, there can be occasions where people come together," Gloviczki said. "It provides a kind of glue to bring together communities that might have otherwise not even recognized one another."
"These Facebook groups bring a visibility to the grieving process in a way that wouldn't have been possible before social media," said Thiel-Stern.
Thiel-Stern says that one can look to the Uses and Gratifications Theory for an explanation. The theory says that people have an inherent need to use, in this case, a certain type of technology to gratify themselves. "The gratification in this case could be that the person is truly trying to connect or that this is their own personal way of grieving or memorializing."
For many, social media becomes a vehicle of self expression. "People tend to reach out for support during moments of tragedies," Gloviczki said. "We all see terrible moments and these moments really encourage us to think about what it is that makes us human, and it's this desire, I think, to connect and find the good in one another."
This trend is sure to continue. "People are used to connecting on social media now," said Thiel-Stern. The trend is moving toward more visual expression, as seen in the Sandy Hook Elementary remembrance groups where some members share memorial art. "Right now we see mostly text expressions, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see more interactive forms of expression, like videos and photos," said Gloviczki. He also points to location-based expression, since so many users connect to social media through mobile devices. "When we think about our own forms of telling the story and increasing the richness, I can see location-based and video tools becoming increasingly popular." -Sarah Howard
Peter Gloviczki is an assistant professor of communications at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C.