I woke up on the morning of December 8, 2011 thinking it was going to be game day to study for my first final. Who would have guessed that I would actually end up reaching out to more than 50 thousand new readers and visitors on The Collegiate Times website and others that same day. I’ve spent more than the last 48 hours thinking about what really happened. This blog post serves as my stamp on how the day played out, very different than what I think the average Virginia Tech student experienced on campus and still how I see the social media realm changing our campus ever so slightly.
Let’s get real. The year is 2011 (almost 2012 for that matter) and the majority of individuals that a college student interacts with has some form of a social network presence whether it is a twitter handle (mine being @jamiechung) or Facebook profile page. Let’s get back to the basics.
But where does it all really start? How do people get notified of such an event on a mass scale?
The answer I believe honestly has to be a combination of the VT Alerts system, Twitter and Facebook. I was sitting in my room with Diana Tran (@diananhtran) and scrolling through my Facebook feed and I saw someone post about the initial VT Alert. What caught us off guard was that there is obiviously a delay with receiving our alerts via text and email considering the entire system has to blast the message to the entire campus population as well as other subscribers who opt-in for the service. She was surprised I didn’t know about it already and I later found out that she received her alert at 12:40PM, almost ten minutes before I did. That’s a significant amount of time in my opinion in any “emergency response situation”. It’s not a fault on any system, just a fault with the technology.
My cell phone received the same message at 12:49 PM
S: VT Alerts
Gun shots reported- Coliseum Parking lot. Stay Inside. Secure doors.
Emergency personnel responding. Call 911 for help. To confirm: reply
with ‘YES’ and send.
What is interesting about these three messages are the time stamps that they were posted. Diana received her message at 12:40p, the @VTAlerts twitter was updated at 12:36p which I am assuming is tightly integrated with the system blast of messages and I finally got my message at 12:49p.
The reason it is still a combination of the VT Alerts system and social media is that while everyone will eventually get the message through the alerts system, it will never be as wide spread as one person getting the alert and then that same person alerting their network of friends. By each individual retweeting the alerts or posting the alerts on their profiles, there is a large exponential rippling effect in terms of broadcasting the news. Virginia Tech may have only intended to alert 45k or so individuals who are subscribed in the service, but by those select individuals notifying another group, that entire notification system can reach millions which is really how the the news got spread so fast within a local, regional, national and eventually to the global international stage.
My initial reaction to reading the alert was to check on the Collegiate Times website. I knew that we would be breaking this story on the front page within a couple of minutes and sure enough, we did. On Thursday, my role as the Online Director definitely changed from it’s typical day-to-day responsibilities to one real goal and driving motivation. To ensure that the website remained healthy, which really means make sure that our server does not go down and that we are still able to update the public on this matter. It may seem easier said than done, but there became a point throughout Thursday’s event where the amount of traffic that we were receiving on the website was so high in magnitude that it was a problem far beyond our scope. Really what happened was that we were simply not prepared technologically to scale our server in time to meet the upcoming demand.
An easy analogy of what was going on with the website would be this: Imagine you have a cardboard box that has a maximum weight capacity of 5lbs or it will give out. Well now imagine placing 50lbs of weight in the same box and expecting it to uphold that for a couple of hours.
So you have a cardboard box that is breaking, why not just simply duct tape it for reinforcement?
Simply put? It’s not that simple especially with the technologies we were working with. At the very moment while we are hosted on a small virtual private server, it was not easy nor scalable at a moment’s notice from my knowledge and something had to be done at the given time.
Scaling is a process of simply a technique or series of technologies that increases a website’s ability to function as the demand for the services it provides increases.
It wasn’t like I had 10 hours to figure out a solution to call my higher ups with an action plan, budget in hand and decide how we were going to scale then. An executive decision had to be made and there was no real backup plan to handle traffic of this magnitude in such a short period of time.
Before you can understand the next graphic and analogy, it’s important to understand this terminology.
- Visit: An individual person who visited the site counts as a visit. Google tracks this based on your computer, IP Address, browser, etc.
- Unique Visitors: Out of the total visits, this is the amount of unique computers or people identified.
- Pageviews: Each time you refresh the page on a website, it is considered a pageview. If you are on page one of an article and go to page two, that is two pageviews.
Now with the analogy in place and some definitions, here is how it all plays out in context of what happened this Thursday afternoon. On average, the Collegiate Times website gets about 38k visits each week. That is around 5.5k visits each day, give or take that sometimes we are as high as 7k visits and on some other days, we are lower than the average. On Thursday alone, we got 52k visits and over 140k page views. Now that is some serious traffic and attention.
The adrenaline that came from these numbers had its role in the decisions I was making but it came in a different form. It wasn’t like I felt I was under pressure from my peers regarding the website being slow, unresponsive and practically at times — useless. But it was still that pride and that eagerness and responsibility to provide that information was what really kept me going. I knew that I had a duty and that people were depending on me to carry those things out. It expanded the normal reach of colleagues and staff but beyond that and the boundaries of our average readership on the last Thursday of the school semester where people were supposed to be studying for exams.
I called Lindsey Brookback, the managing editor and told her to start posting updates from the Twitter account mainly. She was already having problems updating the story on our main website because of the increase in traffic and I had already try to employ some caching techniques in order to reduce the server and stress it was under. I know it was imminent that the server is going to be unresponsive soon. First thing that went in my mind was to setup a temporary breaking page. I knew that if all the resources of the website was dedicated to one page, it would reduce the load which it did in the grand scheme of things.
I wanted one centralized place where if someone was new to story, they could get it on one page on our website. I setup the twitter handle as a widget so that users still could see what was going on but my goal was to have the staff continuously update this page as they would a normal story on the website. Still we can have the instant streaming of news through twitter but I felt there needed to be a static collection of firm facts on paper for a person to read fluidly.
Did that plan fall through? Definitely. That’s why you always strive to continuously make changes.
— Jamie Chung (@jamiechung) December 8, 2011
After my tweet, this was when I realized that traffic was going to really start picking up. I didn’t realize that the CT was the only one with photos of the event. I understand the campus was on lock down but it didn’t even come to mind that while I had a basic understanding of what was going on based on twitter and how the campus layout is as a student, the outside world doesn’t have that same perspective. Two photographers of the CT, Daniel Lin (photo editor) and Brad Klodowski stopped by my room to upload some photos online. They were in the area and wanted to get some shots nearby and I needed their memory cards to upload to the world the first set of photos regarding what the situation really looked like outside.
I got retweeted by various other news publications including the @CollegiateTimes handle which now had picked up almost 18,000 new followers (evening out at 20k) within this short time span. My link to the photos was pointed to Daniel Lin’s flickr account which The Guardian later linked to as well on their news page. I’m sure that they weren’t the only one who linked to Daniel’s flickr set but that only further exploded our server with more requests from readers wanting to know more.
As soon as I did upload the photos to flickr and mirrored them on our breaking page, I realized that the photos were being viewed an immencely amount. Before Daniel left my room a couple minutes later to take more photos, the album had already received over 1,000 views and rising. To see those numbers rise in such a fast pace can be overwhelming, but it made you smile inside knowing that you are doing the right thing and that you are still contributing to the staff on a whole. It was that same energy that kept you going in the grand scheme of things.
As of the publishing of this blog post each of the seven photos has over 30k views. That is ridiculous in only a couple of days in my opinion.
Daniel Lin asked me to give out photo credit if people did ask so I left my information on the flickr as well as our breaking pages. What I learned at the time was that during this entire chaos, Virginia Tech’s email systems were down. I switched to my personal address instead and that’s when my phone started running off the hook and my inbox began to flood with messages from organizations requesting rights to the photos. Radio stations, local news channels, FOX, CNN, NBC, CBS and basically everyone’s mother’s favorite news network and organization started ringing my cell phone.
Everyone wanted the photos, everyone wanted them now. Before I could finish one conversation on the phone, another would be ringing in. I even had calls from Al Jazeera English from London requesting interviews which I had to decline due to my journalistic affiliation. At one point, I had my fellow peers and friends answering my cell phone because I was still making changes to the website in order to bring it back online. One received a call from Quebec, Canada asking if I could do an interview in French! So many opportunities for other news stations to simply eat up the small guy and take our content. While the interviews did seem inticing, I had to decline but I did manage to reffer them to other students who were willing to be interviewed. My dorm room in 739 Lee Hall started to turn into a mini news satellite and office.
Going back to my original goal, I still wanted one page where visitors could see the photos being updated throughout the day as well as get the updates they were craving. Now I had realized that the content was being spread thin. I had twitter with news updates, and flickr with photos. It needed to be consolidated we would not lose traction and visitors.
This is when I turned to the cloud. I rented a simple cloud machine from PHPFog and got setup within minutes. Quickly installed a wordpress blog, uploaded the photos as I did from flickr and setup the twitter widget on the side. I setup the blog with additional cache plugins so it didn’t face the same fate as the main site and within 30 minutes, I had what is now http://collegiatetimes.phpfogapp.com/. The key with this cloud server was that I could scale as the traffic became too demanding. This is something I couldn’t do with my own control on the main Collegiate Times server. I was in full control and with this solution, I was able to better control what was going on. While this did have some problems keeping up at first, it became eventually stable to handle the visitors.
By this time as well, I had redirected the entire Collegiate Times to the twitter handle. It seemed redundant to have all these mini pages pointing back to the twitter feed for update. In the long run, I still couldn’t manage to keep up on the traffic on my own so it turned out for the better.
Here are reasons why it turned out a lot better to switch to twitter:
- I didn’t have to worry anymore about the upkeep of the website.
If our story and twitter page actually crashed twitter it would definitely have been the best decision ever.
- Updates are now broadcasted in one centralized place.
While I did setup the wordpress blog, I wanted writers to essentially post bulletin and updated full reports in the mean time. I realized that with everything going on, it was inconsiderate of me to expect the writers to manage multiple news streams. 140 characters is all we needed consistently throughout the day.
Of course, these were the downsides that burned me up:
- It was basically admitting defeat.
The resources I had allocated to me were running out. I wasn’t ready to give up but it a lot of things ended up going out of my hands.
- No analytics and unaccounted for readers.
I had no way of gaining analytics from the visitors since Twitter was now the main source of information. Especially being a person who is passionate about the web, it always intrigues me where our visitors are coming from and how they are getting there. I wanted to know how people were finding out and I no longer had an idea of.
As the day slowly crept on, things started to mellow out and became under control. The calls stopped and I could finally start conversing with my folks and family back home again. By this time, the press conference had started at 4:30p and pictures were being uploaded of the conference to our website as well.
By the end of the day, services was restored to the main website and while the traffic was still significantly high, it was at least manageable. For me personally, the six hours of this event was quick hectic but I learned a lot. But isn’t that what college is really about? I was glad to be a part of a team where we all knew what we needed to do. I am very much proud of the Collegiate Times staff and the way we handled the day. We didn’t let it get the best of us and we worked with the basics. In the grand scheme of things, you realize that news is really about what is going on in front of you or around you. That is basically what twitter did for us. The 140 character limit told the world what needed to be shared and we didn’t need any more or less.
What do I take away? Hindsight is always 20/20. But who doesn’t already know that?
Being the Online Director at the CT, I’ve never really considered myself a real, true journalist since I’ve always been integrated with the technologies that powered the website. I’ve never really had to become a reporter or anyone who handles with those things intimately. I’ve never actually done an interview with anyone before but this weekend has had me featured in various news publications and blogs including the Poynter, NBC-17 in Raleigh (video interview below) and Ralph Hanson to name a few and I am thankful for these opportunities to share about what happened.
To be honest, the rush was incredible. To know that that your team and staff can contribute such valuable and informative content in such a short period of time to such a widespread audience is awesome. I definitely think that with the use of Twitter and other social media avenues, it was made it easier to for us at the CT to connect with our readers and provide them with the short updates people may actually be craving. I have become even more appreciative of journalism and think that it has taught me things that I would never have had been able to be a part of. I salute the Collegiate Times for the awesome coverage that of this weekend. A job well done by all included in the operations and news efforts for the good of the community. I am glad I could have been a part of it. I would never have imagined in my own lifetime to manage and impact as many people as I did from the floor of my dorm room.
Cheers, to student journalism.