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Facebook and Virginia Tech: A New Normal

In the hours, now days, following the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech, this blog, as well as numerous outlets, chronicled the role of Facebook and other online media sites in the lives of those affected. First, information about the event and –I’m alive! – declarations spread between Virginia Tech students and their loved ones.

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In the hours, now days, following the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech, this blog, as well as numerous outlets, chronicled the role of Facebook and other online media sites in the lives of those affected. First, information about the event and –I’m alive! – declarations spread between Virginia Tech students and their loved ones. In some cases, Facebook was the only source of information available. Later, funeral plans were shared. The site also become a resource for news media, who gleaned intimate details about the victims from their profiles, and in some cases, broadcast information on-air and online which was intended to remain private. (The Facebook communications staff spent a brutal forty-eight hours policing their privacy policy and violations thereof.) Now, Facebook profiles of the deceased victims have been transformed into dynamic shrines, where friends can continue to post messages of sadness and tribute. And there are also more than 500 global groups which any registered Facebook user can join to share messages of support, tribute, outrage, activism or grief.

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Today, as classes resume, the Virginia Tech students, faculty, family and community are struggling to carry on in the wake of something terrible, a brave attempt at a new normal, invented one halting step at a time.

But the new normal of a digital age adds an additional, and often mind-bending, element to the attempt to make sense of a world gone temporarily mad. Consider the killer’s first victim, nineteen year old Emily Jane Hilscher. Within hours of her murder, Hilscher had become the subject of gossip and conjecture on The Drudge Report, among other sites, due to early speculation that she was Cho Seung-Hui’s girlfriend.

Her friends, certain that they knew the facts of the matter, immediately set up a Facebook global group, Truth For Emily Hilscher, to defend her honor, and that of her actual boyfriend, who had become a person of interest in the moments after the shooting. (The police have since confirmed that Hilscher had no mutual relationship with Cho, though police are searching to see if he had contacted her via phone or e-mail. And because her own boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, was an early suspect, it may have lead to the speculation that this had been some sort of love triangle.) Like the other victims, she is now the focus of many Facebook memorial groups. One particularly poignant one, which I won’t name, opens with a pointed message to the media not to contact group members or quote from the site. Hilscher – and her story – also became a Wikipedia entry. (It’s since been expanded to include all the victims.)

In this case, the ability to set a record straight is encouraging. But in others – like the false profiles of the killer which popped up across social media sites – remain more disheartening, and familiar examples of the madness of crowds on high-speed. And still others, like mydeathspace.com – a macabre portal of publicly available information about myspace members who have died – are just too creepy to discuss. (They’ve been offering premium memberships since March. Woohoo.)

And as if things weren’t bad enough, the notorious Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, famous for their bile-filled, anti-gay rhetoric, threatened to picket any Virginia Tech funerals. The organization, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, runs two websites, GodHatesFags.com and GodHatesAmerica.com. They have become known for staging protests at events such as funerals for military service personnel, because they believe, among other things, that random violence and war related deaths are God’s wrath against homosexuality.

Again, Facebook users spread the word. The group – Stop Fred Phelps and the WBC from protesting at fallen VT student funerals!! alerted community members to the threat, and circulated a petition of protest. Something worked. From the group’s profile page: “Through some influence of this group or just the willpower and prayers of 50,000+ people, the WBC was STOPPED. They will not be picketing any Virginia Tech victims funerals.”

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The public outcry, quite likely fed by online protests like those found on Facebook, brought the issue to the attention of radio talk show host Mike Gallagher, who offered the WBC airtime to spew their viewpoints, in exchange for leaving the mourners in peace. (He did the something similar after the WBC threatened to disrupt mourners after the Amish school shooting last October.) The terms of the negotiation was announced on the WBC’s own website:

Westboro Baptist Church hereby cancels all pending pickets, and agrees not to schedule future pickets, related to The Virginia Tech Massacre, on the following terms and conditions; to wit: In consideration for 3 hours of national radio time with Mike Gallagher on his National Radio Show — next Tuesday, April 24, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon New York time — Westboro Baptist Church has agreed to cancel all pickets now pending and not to schedule future pickets related to The Virginia Tech Massacre.

Gallagher’s statement on why he agreed to give them airtime can be found here. (Note: Gallagher’s producer has since contacted me by e-mail to let me know that Gallagher also monitors the WBC website, so he knew of the threat to picket in advance of the public outcry.)

So while all of this rightly inspires debate on the role of social media in the modern world, it’s also a deeply practical matter for a fairly hefty segment of the Facebook employee base, the customer service department. And since I’m in full Facebook mode these days, I thought I’d share some insight into what they do all day, since when things go wrong with the site, or in the lives of their users, they are often the first to know.

In addition to fielding basic requests for assistance, password resetting, help using the site, etc., the fifty person customer service team also handles issues of abuse – everything from inappropriate posts and privacy violations to the appeals queue, where you end up if you’ve had your account taken away and are attempting to wheedle your way back on. (Good luck. I’ve met Simon. He’s heard it all before.) And in times of trouble, like these, the assistance they offer is far more intimate.

“We have had an unusually busy week,” allows Tom LeNoble, the director of customer service. A spike in user traffic would mean a related rise in customer service requests. But some of it has also been making themselves available to customers who need to connect. “Our users have expressed how much they appreciated Facebook during this horrific event as it, at times, was their only means of correspondence. They used Facebook mainly to let each other know they were ‘ok’.”

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Let’s be clear: Any doubt that Facebook doesn’t take its business seriously is erased with one visit to the customer service floor. Leadership is a big part: LeNoble is a preternaturally calm man, with a soothing voice and just enough of a southern twang to make you want to curl up with a bowl of biscuits and gravy. But his easy-going manner masks a serious corporate vitae. He ran global service operations for Palm, supervised customer service for walmart.com and ran customer service consumer sales and support for MCI, among other things. Tapped by a venture capital “friend” to check out the growing business, LeNoble had never heard of Facebook when he showed up, in a suit, for his interview in November 2005. (Networking alert: Jim Breyer of Accel, a Facebook investor, is also a board member of walmart.com) Their original offices, which had been covered in murals (and are about to be again) were a surprise. “I thought I’d walked into a restaurant”. Zuckerberg appeared in t-shirt, shorts and his trademark sandals. “I was clearly overdressed,” LeNoble says.

Unlike the engineering area, the customer service space is relatively clear of food, debris and all-nighter clutter. But the talent pool in the department (some are pictured) is just as impressive as the wizards who stay up late. The nearly 50 reps are all college educated, mostly from top shelf universities. (As I mentioned in the piece, my back of the envelope calculation suggests that there is about five million dollars worth of tuition handling customer service at Facebook.) And they are hiring aggressively – there will be 100 reps by the end of the year. All are former Facebook users, and all have to pass a fairly rigorous screening and orientation before they are set loose upon the Facebook community.

They also play a role – about a third of their time – conducting quality control analyses or research on various products, for example, on how search works on the Facebook site. Or, they may be asked to do a competitive analysis on other social networking sites. “We spend a good deal of time generating information internally for our engineers and developers.”

But there’s no way to get a Facebook customer service rep on the phone under normal circumstances. If it’s a real emergency, it will be LeNoble’s voice that you hear. He’ll get on the phone with frightened parents looking to understand more about what Facebook actually is, although he won’t let them into their kid’s site. Occasionally, it’s more serious. “I deal with a few suicides a week,” he says, through the National Suicide Hotline, occasionally he’ll need to contact the Center for Exploited and Missing Children or some other authority “but those numbers are small in comparison to the number of users we have and also other sites.”

The past few week, of course, has been dominated by the shooting. And LeNoble is characteristically circumspect about how they’ve been handling things. But he’s clearly been working the phones and supporting his team. “The CS team, being so close to the demographic impacted, felt very compassionate and concerned for everyone involved…the victims, their families and friends,” he wrote me in a recent e-mail. The company sent out an announcement of sympathy that topped the News Feed for all Virginia Tech network users (39,000+). “And on Friday we changed the colors on the Virginia Tech network to maroon and orange in support.” But when any user dies, “we memorialize the account” says LeNoble, which protects the user’s privacy, while allowing their friends to continue to visit the profile and “post on the wall to express thoughtful comments.” (They have plenty of active military members, so they’ve had a bit of experience with this.) And with so many deaths happening at once, falling within Facebook’s chief demograpic, the growth of the memorial sites seems nothing short of amazing. “This clearly has become part of the grieving process for many,” write LeNoble.

Thanks to this digital world, now anyone can say – “today, we are all hokies” – and expect that the message will be heard swiftly and personally. That may be one of the more beautiful elements of the new normal.

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