“Took to social media” is an oft-reviled phrase frequently seen in the context of celebrity spats, rants, and otherwise frivolous behavior: So-and-so Real Housewife took to social media. But on Tuesday, teenagers at a Florida high school took to social media when they had nowhere else to turn, to send tweets and pictures from inside their classrooms as they hid from an active shooter. At least 17 people died in the shooting, according to the last available figures.
These students’ grim posts provide an intimate peek at horror that no one envisioned back when social media first came along. Images of terror and despair, like the shaky footage of students crouched under their desks as the sound of bullets and screams ring out, surface on our phones now, transmitted directly from the victims’ own. Social media often invites the question of “who asked for this?” On Tuesday, the debates about “who cares about what I ate for breakfast?” seemed pretty far away as we were confronted with pictures taken from the cellphone of a student squatting inside a locked classroom, worried for his life and the lives of those around him. We’re not used to seeing Snapchat’s quirky trademarks—vertical aspect ratio, transparent black bar for text caption, emojis—applied to scenes of fear and destruction.
Video offers a particularly visceral record of the violence, but text-based tweets depict no less upsetting a scene: Along with the photos of a classroom, a Twitter user named Aiden wrote, “My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m fucking scared right now.” Another Twitter user, one named Heather, posted, “I JUST WANT TO KNOW IF EVERYONE IS SAFE CAUSE IM SHAKING THERE WAS LIKE PEOPLE IVE SEEN BEFORE JUST DEAD IN THE HALLS I CANT CALM DOWN AT ALL THIS WAS THE MOST TERRYFYING THIS IVE EVER SEEN.” Never before has caps lock been quite so inadequate at conveying emotion and emphasis.
These videos, pictures, and text updates are horrible in all the ways we’ve come to expect of the details that emerge from mass shootings, tragedies that don’t become any less tragic even though they’ve morphed into something like an everyday occurrence in this country. But they’re also horrible in a way that feels new. Despite the ubiquity of the internet and social media and the many ways they’ve long since transformed and reshaped daily life, many of us still think of this constant stream of our life experiences as novelties, activities for goofing off or wasting time. What happens on social media has always had the quality of not seeming quite like real life. It’s even palpable in that phrase, “took to Twitter,” which implies that if something really mattered, it would be worth a better platform, a more august mode of communicating.
Students shouldn’t have to tweet through shootings or post snaps while worrying that they’re the last messages they’ll ever send. That they now do—and that social media posts from inside active shooting zone will likely soon become another routine element of a situation that should never have been routine—should fill us with as much horror as the images themselves. This is not the fault of kids who have grown up tweeting, snapping, and posting their every thought and feeling. What’s really disturbing is that these shootings keep happening and that even being inside the classroom with these kids, via their first-person, real-time accounts, seems unlikely to change a thing. It won’t spur politicians to action or make Second Amendment advocates reconsider their positions. As the oft-repeated phrase goes, if the deaths of 20 first graders didn’t, why should this? We’ve now seen inside the classrooms and heard the screams of children who deserve to go to school every day without fearing for their lives. If we won’t do anything to protect them, at least we’ll have to watch.