Strangers pour out their sadness online

The Baltimore Sun

So many people logged onto yesterday that Vy Le couldn't keep up with the traffic, and the site crashed.

The visitors were not just the classmates that the Virginia Tech sophomore thought would want to access the memorial site in the aftermath of the campus shooting Monday that left 33 people dead. There were people from England, Vietnam and all around the world.

"Everyone wants to share their feelings with Virginia," Le said.

Which is why Le's not giving up on the site, which has consumed almost all of her time since police let her back into her dorm.

"It was the only thing I could do," said Le, 19. "Everyone has something to say, an opinion, a feeling. I didn't want to just sit there and do nothing."

Students and perfect strangers have poured out their sadness online, on Facebook, on message boards for Dave Matthews and other musicians, and on sites like Le's. Just as the Internet helped keep students, and many others, informed during the mayhem, it has since become a venue for worldwide mourning.

There are photographic memorials on Flickr, tributes set to music on YouTube and social networking pages to honor the dead. People are posting on, a joint site for Virginia-area colleges, on Facebook sites such as I'm ok at VT and dozens of other newly organized support groups., an online obituary service, set up a guest book for people to write notes. About 8,000 people submitted entries in 24 hours.

"The numbers are really extraordinary," said Hayes Ferguson, the company's CEO. "If you had something like this occur 20 years ago, it would have been pretty hard to have a stranger from Illinois or Arizona write to you. You wouldn't even know they cared."

But, in the networked age, and particularly since the emergence of online memorials after Sept. 11, 2001, "people seem to benefit from publicly being able to express their condolences and their grief," she said.

Kent Norman, a University of Maryland psychology professor who is writing a book on cyber- psychology, felt compelled to join one of the online groups, called Pray for Virginia Tech. Doing so helped him channel his sadness.

The school "had a memorial service, but only a few people can be there," he said. "I think the rest of the world wants to have expression, to give feedback."

The fact that the massacre occurred on a tech-savvy college campus has contributed to the glut of mourning sites, said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Washington-based Pew Internet & American Life Project, which studies the social impact of the Internet.

"If this happened in a business community," she said, "I don't think social networking would have played as big a role."

On many campuses, 70 percent to 90 percent of the student body is plugged into high-tech networks, she said. And the Virginia Tech campus and surrounding town of Blacksburg, Va., constitute one of the most wired areas in the country.

Meris Shuwarger, a student at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., who has taken classes at Virginia Tech, sits in front of the television with her laptop open, taking in news broadcasts while simultaneously checking Facebook pages for news of her many friends on the campus.

"Wikipedia is good because they keep updating the list" of the dead, Shuwarger said. "Then I check I'm ok at VT and some half dozen other sites."

Like many, Shuwarger changed her Facebook profile picture to a black ribbon with a Virginia Tech logo.

For Jenna Sieverts, 21, of Lutherville, joining Facebook support groups was a way to feel secure even after she knew her friends at Virginia Tech were unhurt.

"We're five hours and who knows how many hundreds of miles away, and what else can you do to support your peers?" the Towson University student said.

Online mourning may become more commonplace in years to come, said Matt Kirschenbaum, associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, a College Park think tank.

"The screen is becoming a really important place for us emotionally and intellectually," the University of Maryland English professor said. "It's a lot easier for people to express themselves, both because of the near-anonymity and because it's writing, instead of speech."

In that sense, Internet grieving is not a new genre: Writing has always been the impulse of the bereaved.

Sun reporters Brad Schleicher, Tanika White and Tom Dunkel contributed to this article.

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