CBS News science and technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg says Web sites normally used for socializing are now allowing loved ones to post questions — and messages of grief — "in the hope of finding some answers to this devastating tragedy."
Social-networking sites such as Facebook sometimes get a bad rap for potentially exposing college students and young kids to sexual predators online but, Sieberg observes, this was a clear case of how they can act as a gathering spot in the virtual world.
Facebook had some frantic appeals to friends to see if they were OK, or acting on behalf of distraught family members. In some tragic cases, virtual memorials were created.
For Virginia Tech student Madison Van Duyne and many others, the Web and cell phones provided a pipeline of information.
"I think it would have been 100 times worse not knowing anything," she says. "We had no television in our classroom, and the Web just became our television."
But the official university site wasn't always available, often overwhelmed and providing only short updates.
So, students took the matter into their own hands. From shortly after noon on, reports Sieberg, a handful of them kept the student-run news site, Planet Blacksburg, up and running, even while they were under lockdown.
"I actually had people crowded around my laptop just to watch the news and the updates as they unfolded," recalls Virginia Tech sophomore Kevin Cupp.
He was in a classroom near Norris Hall, scene of most of the shootings, acting as the site's webmaster.
Cupp explained that he and his classmates happened to be in a media course when everything transpired, and their instructor encouraged them to use the computers in the classroom.
It was, Sieberg points out, a frightening and amazing real-world assignment for them, obviously right in the middle of the story.
Cupp told Sieberg it was "very important" to have Planet Blacksburg and other sites accessible during the shootings. "When something like this happens, I mean, the first thing you wanna do is just find out as much as you can about it. … Shortly after all this happened, I got tons of calls, text messages, e-mails from friends and family all around the country just wondering if I was all right."
In fact, Cupp says Planet Blacksburg was flooded with students and families all day, with more than 100,000 visitors, and counting.
Planet Blacksburg is offering the campus community a virtual wall, which the site describes as "safe place to express whatever you feel in the aftermath of this unmitigated evil."
To see it, click here.