Tragic events turn Facebook into a tool for exploitation

In Virginia, over 30 students won't graduate, won't have a life past the soggy morning of Monday, April 16. The shooting at Virginia Tech (VT) is a tragedy, and a terrifying one at that. With hearts scarred and frightened, the students, faculty and families associated with VT have more to deal with now than anyone should. Least of their concerns, one would assume, is Facebook. But as it turns out, tragedy and Facebook go hand in hand these days.

Only an hour after the news broke on CNN, at least two Facebook groups sprung up offering their condolences to those involved in the tragedy. On the Virginia Tech network page, advertisements for a group called "I'm OK at VT" appeared, encouraging students from the college to join in and to let their friends and family know that they were not hurt. While these almost immediate outpourings of public concern and prayers are well-intentioned, other communication on Facebook was less than heartfelt.

According to a wall post on the VT network page, "I…started getting messages from people from different countries wanting more and more info about the incident. Some even went to the extent of asking me to record my reaction over a video cam and send it to them. Disgusting!" Others had similar stories. "Ok all the feedback is great but stop e-mailing and Facebook messaging and stop friending me, its[sic] not even people from tech[sic] its people from random as hell places."

Using Facebook as a tool to exploit and satisfy an over-eager curiosity is more than misguided concern. It reflects the impersonality of networking sites like Facebook, which portray people as thumbnail snap-shots and a list of interests. In the midst of a tragedy, this impersonality is especially amplified. People become members of groups: just another person to use as a source.

There has always been an impersonal quality to journalism, where quotes are valuable and time is of the essence. As people become more and more connected via networking Web sites like Facebook and Myspace, we all become amateur journalists, able to look up most anything we want to know with the click of a mouse. These sites seem to give implicit permission to know what we want, when we want, and-as one can see from some people's reactions to the VT shootings-allow us to drop our sense of human decency, others right to privacy and emotional sensitivity at the sign-in page.

This is a reminder that a high level of connectedness does not trump a high level of ethics. While Facebook can allow us to quickly and easily express concern and support in ways that were once unknown, it is also a tool that some are using to add impersonal insult to injury. So as we send our prayers and condolences out to a heartbroken VT, let's keep them at that.