Following the tragedy online

Like many alumns, former Argus writer Eric Lach ’08 has been thinking about Wesleyan a lot in the past few days. He wrote a short piece for the New Yorker‘s News Desk blog about being connected to the campus tragedy and kept up-to-date with all the coverage on Wesleying, the ACB, Facebook, and President Roth’s e-mails, and trying to make sense of it from afar.

Most of you can relate, even if you were on campus for the past few days:

Following the Wesleyan Murder Online

At 2:42 P.M. on Wednesday, I received a one-line e-mail from a friend telling me that a girl had been shot at Wesleyan University, from which we both graduated last spring. I wrote for the student newspaper, The Argus, whose offices are directly above the bookstore café where, I soon found out, Johanna Justin-Jinich, a junior, was killed earlier that Wednesday afternoon.

As the hours went on, I watched the story hit Wesleyan Web sites, then local Connecticut news, and finally national giants like The New York Times and CNN. With each step, the reporting became more polished and thorough. One site posted photos showing “anonymous” bystanders around the crime scene. I could name most of them.

Fifteen years ago, I might have come across the story on the evening news. Or heard about it from friends, passing rumors of the news around over phone calls or lunch. I would have appreciated the Times article the next morning, bringing me a report from my former community. But things work differently now.

Facebook, for instance, already has its ritual for responding to tragedy. Statuses are updated with heartfelt notes, memorial groups created and joined. My news feed quickly became a stream of outreach messages from fellow recent-graduates, all on the outside, looking in: “Thoughts, prayers, and love to Wesleyan. senseless”; “Prayers and big love to Johanna’s family, friends and all of Wesleyan community”; “hang in there Wesleyan.” These expressions of digital grief put me closer to Middletown than I would have ever imagined.

Late Wednesday afternoon, I began following a site called College ACB. ACB stands for Anonymous Confession Board; students at dozens of colleges and universities around the country have adopted similar ones. As I knew it, the ACB was a place where crushes could be disclosed, frustrations vented, memes developed—and harassment and incoherence reigned. But while the murderer was still on the loose and several thousand undergraduates were advised to stay indoors for over twenty-four hours, the ACB became a way in to try and understand the event in real time. Students linked to all the news updates (“news channel 8 just showed a photo on the suspect on tv… trying to find it online”), and reported what they saw outside (“the fucking fox news vultures are here. don’t just talk to them.”). They debated the merits of staying indoors, or just simply leaving campus (“don’t be scared. stay in your room, chill, try and relax.”). Alumni living in nearby cities posted, offering support and a place to stay if needed (“i’m in new haven – can take 2 or 3”). By the time Stephen Morgan turned himself into the police Thursday evening, cacophony had returned to the ACB, albeit more restrained than usual.

Usually, I change the channel when an anchor on the local news starts to report on a homicide; without a point of connection, it feels too close to watching “Law and Order.” But when you’re part of a community, a crime produces shock, anger, a surplus of emotion, and you seek out information. This week, I learned how social networks offer a way through the clutter of “rational” reporting, sensationalism, and gossip that plague our tragedies, and are no substitutes for the proximity and empathy I was craving. These days, even after you leave a place, you get to keep your social bonds online. They lie dormant, ready to be reactivated with a few keystrokes, when you need them most.

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