Dispatch from a sad, strange week in Charlottesville and online
This week began with a mass shooting in the town where I live. It’s ending with the (possible? probable?) collapse of the website that for better or worse has been my and many other writers’ professional home for the last decade and change. In between, a critical election resolved in an at-once relieving and wholly unsatisfying way.
It’s been a lot to process. But since I owe you, dear Racket reader, a newsletter, I am going to try.
Anyone who can write software, please report to the 10th floor. Before you do, sign up for a free or paid subscription to The Racket:
The shooting took place Sunday night on the campus of the University of Virginia, less than five miles from my house. I won’t recount the quite gory details here; if you’re interested there’s a fairly graphic story in the Washington Post. (I was brought into help cover the story for the competition.) Suffice it to say, it seems a student on a bus returning from a field trip to see a play in Washington, D.C. — part of Ifa Bayeza’s trilogy on the murder of Emmett Till, no less — pulled out a gun and shot five of his classmates. (The professor may have also been injured, it isn’t clear.) Three of the student victims — Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis, and D’Sean Perry, all members of the UVA football team — died. A fourth, Michael Hollins, was seriously injured but has survived.
The horror and pain experienced by everyone on that bus is unimaginable; I’m not even going to try to put myself in their shoes. But the wider community, on the UVA campus, and in Charlottesville more generally, experienced the shooting as something else: an event mediated by their phones. For students scattered across the campus (and here I am obliged to note that UVAers insist on referring to their campus as grounds), they experienced the horror through social media and official text messages from the administration.
The most chilling message came at 10:42 p.m., from the official university emergency management account on, yes, Twitter:
“Run hide fight” is a phrase drilled into the minds of every American schoolchild in the mass shootings everywhere era. One writer likened it to my generation’s “stop, drop, and roll.” (Still good advice if your clothes catch fire, as far as I know.) It immediately signaled to everyone who read and understood the message that they were, personally, in imminent danger, and might have to be prepared to literally fight a gunman in order to live. The messages set in motion the mental, political, and moral playbook familiar to Zoomers who grew up in the shadow of Sandy Hook, Parkland, and now Uvalde. The 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, UVA’s sometimes sports rival across the state, happened when most current seniors were six years old. Sufficiently terrified, and under directions not to leave where they were, thousands of students at UVA spent twelve hours, from Sunday night until late Monday morning, in a state of siege, hunkering down in dorm rooms, libraries, and the gym, waiting for an assailant to break in and murder them.
We will perhaps never know if the shooter ever actually contemplated going on a wider murder spree after killing his classmates on the bus. What we know is that he did not. The lockdown order was lifted on Monday morning, after it became clear the student suspect had long since fled town; he was arrested about ninety miles away down I-64 in Richmond soon after.
But for the thousands of students who went through that siege, and their relatives and neighbors who watched the breathless updates through the night, the sense of terror and trauma did not quickly pass. I attended a vigil that night at a church on grounds. Talking to some students after the service it was clear that they had been through something — something very different from the survivors and victims on the actual bus, but something nonetheless. They were shaken, exhausted, a little punchy, employing the self-effacing gallows humor familiar to anyone who has spent time in a disaster or combat zone. This was not a thing that had happened to someone else, or even merely their community. It was something that happened to them, personally.
That is the power of social media and hyperconnectivity. By contrast, when I was an undergrad at Northwestern, in suburban Chicago — back in the technologically medieval era that was 1999 — a white nationalist went on a three-day, two-state rampage, shooting at random the Black, Jewish, and Asian people he saw. Not far from our campus, he killed the university’s former basketball coach. As I remember, my roommates and I didn’t learn that a neo-Nazi killer had been on the loose until the next day.
Were we better off back then? On one hand, if the UVA shooter had gone on a random rampage, the steady stream of Twitter and texts could have saved lives. If the NU coach, Ricky Byrdsong, had gotten word that a shooter was headed toward his neighborhood, he might have run for shelter, instead of walking down the street with his children, unaware. Yet as it was, social media made Sunday’s incident far more immediate and traumatizing than it would have otherwise been — taking what turned out to be a brief and hyperfocused tragedy, and turning it into a widespread and prolonged state of emergency.
The sensation of having to navigate those extremes at once — the near-miraculous utility and oppressive stress brought on by our feeds — is well known to anyone who has learned to mediate the world through social media. It is a sensation that those who grew up as “digital natives” may not realize is a fairly recent phenomenon. And if one stupid, selfish apartheid scion of a megabillionaire keeps mucking things up, it may be a phenomenon that isn’t with us very long — at least in the form of what has been the world’s hegemonic news and policy app for over a decade.
The experience of this event-as-conversation also helped make the incident more overtly and immediately political than it might have otherwise been. Because the suspected killer’s motives remain opaque and probably extremely personal (race presumably wasn’t a factor since all involved were Black; it seems the suspected killer knew the victims, having briefly been affiliated with the football team), that left the matter of the gun. The vigil service thus took on the feeling of a heartfelt gun control Twitter thread — retweets as it were, as it was a slightly modified Episcopal litany written by a Maine priest in 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting. The litany takes rhetorical aim both at the shooter (“for those who from malice or illness are the instruments of violence and death”), asking God to forgive him, as well as implicitly condemning the “powerful political forces” — i.e., the pro-guns-everywhere Republican Party, which, as noted above, just won a narrow majority and thus effective control over the U.S. House of Representatives. It was a reminder that social media has also been an irreplaceable tool in forging movements, and changing the way people think about their world, for good or bad.
I don’t have a nice neat way to tie up all those thoughts. I hope the UVA community finds healing. Having a society absolutely awash in guns is bad. And Twitter and social media in general can be essential tools of safety, but also can really mess with our minds. What if the next mass shooting (because let’s be honest, there will be one) happens at a moment when Twitter is either non-functional or has just been abandoned almost entirely? What might be gained? What, or perhaps who, will be lost?