Published: April 15, 2009

In the immediate aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, students at the university were shocked, confused and wanted answers to simple questions: who was responsible and who were the victims?

When traditional sources for that information proved too slow for the survivors on the small campus, they turned to a familiar place for answers: Facebook. The social networking site, seen by many as more of a time waster than an actual networking tool, quickly became the fastest and most accurate destination for students seeking information about those they feared were killed in the attacks.

Now some University of Colorado at Boulder researchers are looking at how social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are challenging the age-old concept of "official sources."

Leysia Palen, assistant professor in the computer science department and director of the ConnectivIT Lab, is leading projects on the use of technology in disasters and is halfway through a five-year National Science Foundation CAREER grant to study data dissemination in disasters. Palen said that even in the short time since she first submitted her grant proposal prior to Hurricane Katrina, the communication landscape has changed significantly.

"My group's research has evolved because the rate of technological change is so rapid, and the number of people using it has increased immensely since Katrina," said Palen. "Across emergency situations, we continue to ask: What kind of information are people sharing, how do they adapt technology to their situation, and how do they coordinate with others on such a large scale?"

Palen and her colleagues have been examining a growing number of disasters and large-scale emergencies since Katrina, researching how those events have materialized and been discussed online, and how that interaction has changed over time.

"It's becoming more organized," said Palen. "We see evidence that people are learning that online sources and communication can be very critical. Looking for help, searching lists of the missing, finding emergency housing online. It's become an important complementary news source and a way to get involved."

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, Palen said, the use of online media was new, but was an important way that the outside world could connect with those affected by the crisis. People converged online -- in discussion forums and on Web sites -- to offer help to victims.

"Would we see a different communications story today if Katrina were to happen again? Yes," said Palen. "People are increasingly going to online sources -- with new ones emerging every day -- and learning how to behave online in emergency situations. There is some cultural learning going on here. We're watching the change, watching societal-level interaction become very, very different. We see this happening on an even weekly basis with each new event."

Palen said much of the online social interaction centers around the "emergency period" of an event. Her work aims to find out how people interact online before, during and after such disasters and emergencies.

"We're trying to look at all the different phases of an emergency," said Palen, "the before, during and after. With a flood, for example, we can look at how people are behaving when they are under threat. People have different needs during different phases."

Palen's research will help introduce new tools that will allow for the automation of online data so public and emergency managers can make the most of online communication.

"We're at a stage of launching into a multidisciplinary effort," said Palen. "This work is spawning new research in computer science, cognitive science and information science."

Jeannette Sutton, research coordinator at the CU-Boulder Natural Hazards Center, also has been examining how the public gets information during disasters. Her research shows that traditional sources, like spokespersons, are being relied upon less by the public, who are instead turning to social media outlets.

"It's changing the way we can communicate," said Sutton. "We are no longer reliant simply on communication from public officials. We can find and share information online."

Sarah Vieweg, a doctoral student in the ATLAS program and a member of the ConnectivIT Lab at CU-Boulder, studied the online presence of Virginia Tech students during and after the 2007 shootings. She found that between Facebook and Wikipedia, the complete list of victims was correctly compiled before that information was officially released by Virginia Tech.

"No posting of a victim name was ever incorrect in the lists we studied," said Vieweg. "People were very careful about posting a name. They really adhered to a social ethos. We saw a couple of instances where people would post a name and others would say 'What are your sources?' Rumor-mongering isn't the norm. Accuracy actually happens much more frequently than people may think. People understood this was a dire, desperate situation."

Sutton also has been looking at how public policy is putting official sources further behind when it comes to disseminating information during a disaster. Following the 2007 wildfires in southern California, Sutton, Palen and their University of California, Irvine colleague Irina Shklovski surveyed residents about how they used technology during the event.

"A lot of the time they spent online was to provide information that wasn't being provided or to correct information put out by official sources," said Sutton. "Emergency managers are trying to adapt and keep up with changes in technology and social media, but we don't yet know how members of the public are using them."

This, she said, is in part due to the culture of using only official sources. Public officials are often barred from accessing social media sites because of information technology security policies, but they are also seen as time wasters or as poor sources of information. This cultural mindset is so strong, Sutton said, that even when the ban on accessing social media was lifted for the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, officials still didn't use them.

"What I found is that even though they lifted the bans, they still went to traditional media sources," said Sutton. "They paid some attention to blogs, but mainly credentialed ones. There was no attention given to Facebook or Twitter."

For more information on Palen's ConnectivIT Lab visit For more information on the Natural Hazards Center, part of CU-Boulder's Institute of Behavioral Science, visit