For anyone seeking immediacy as the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, unfolded Friday, online social media outlets provided an unparalleled view of the events that left 12 people dead and some 70 others injured. They also provided some low points on the humanity scale.
When misfortune strikes, Twitter becomes an essential source of eyewitness information, and that proved to be the case again during the Aurora incident. The hashtag #theatershooting appeared and the tweets began flowing.
As they did, they began to be packaged in interesting ways that sharpened the events for people. Poynter Editor Julie Moos collected a series of tweets for a Storify piece that poignantly captured the mood change among the would-be victims of the Aurora carnage from their excitement about the attending the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in the days preceding the theater shootings to the horror as the rampage unfolded.
Twitter also served as a way for some news outlets to collect their community's reaction to the events in Aurora in real time. That kind of "man in the street" story is nothing new to newspapers, but reactions on Twitter have a conversational feel to them not found in a question and answer exchange between reporter and subject.
For some followers of the tragedy, social media humanized the victims in a unique way. Observed one blogger: "I know more about these victims thanks to their tweets and blogs that will forever have its print on the web. Untouched."
Social media also allowed another group to humanize themselves: Celebrities. Singers like Justin Timberlake and Rihanna, actors like Eva Longoria and John Stamos, and sports figures like Kurt Warner and LeBron James tweeted their sympathies to the Aurora victims.
With social media, ordinary citizens were able to have direct access to witnesses of the Aurora horror, as they did on Reddit. " As Keith Wagstaff wrote for Time, "You can’t ask a witness in a newspaper story how he felt during a disaster or offer condolences to someone you see on cable news."
Social media also reached some lows during the Aurora events. For instance, some denizens of the 9GAG hacker forum tried to claim as one of their own James Holmes, the 25-year-old man identified by police as the shooter in the Aurora incident.
The hackers posted an image of what appears to be some kind of Nazi meeting with this message superimposed on it: "Tomorrow I will kill everyone during the new Batman premiere in Colorado. People will die for the glory of Le 9GAG Army!!!" The posting was attributed to Holmes and post-dated to make it appear as if it were posted the day before the shooting rampage at Aurora.
Another social media low occurred on Twitter. There, on the morning following the Aurora shootings, a message was posted to a Twitter account affiliated with the National Rifle Association stating: "Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?" After around two hours, the posting was taken down by the NRA, which stated, "A single individual, unaware of events in Colorado, tweeted a comment that is being completely taken out of context."
Empty headed following of Twitter trends landed Celeb Boutique in the doghouse over Aurora, too. The fashion brand, or a bot it uses to automate tweets, saw "Aurora" trending, created the hashtag #Aurora and posted it with a tweet pointing its followers to its Aurora dress. Celeb Boutique later tweeted that it was unaware of the news behind the trend.