If America Online's sign-in message following Wednesday's crash of the American Airlines flight that killed nine and injured more than 80 in Little Rock, Ark., was supposed to provide comfort, it didn't: "CHAT NOW: React to today's fatal jet crash in Arkansas." The greeting was more a command than an invitation.
Within the chat room, in between snippets of gossip about Britney Spears and some random ugly comments, most people struggled to, well, react. "Isn't it awful what happened in Arkansas?" wrote one AOLer. "Soooooooo saddddddd," responded another. Mostly, though, members discussed the number of dead and other unrelated stuff. It was not an impromptu grief session.
"It seems we are more interested in gossip and entertainment than concern for those on board," said a chatter who goes by the screen name DMiddag, adding that chat rooms that pop up following tragedies give people a false sense of connection. "And why do they want to be connected?" he asked. "It is just the rubbernecking."
But it could be profitable rubbernecking for AOL. Chatting is the company's most popular feature -- and all chat rooms are adorned with rotating ads.
"It's our experience that people want to chat about the news of the day -- almost more than anything else," said AOL spokeswoman Kim McCreery. "We are simply making it easy for people to find new or timely chat areas. That's what people are seeing on the news, thinking about, reading about and chatting about. 'React' simply points people to an area where others are discussing the topic they are interested in."
If the chat room didn't exist, would there be an outpouring of members' "reactions" to the crash? Hard to say, but it looks as if AOL's crash chat created a vacuum for the emotions of its members, some of whom gamely tried to fill it.
But where's the line between providing a service and exploiting emotions after a disaster? "My feeling is that it's OK to connect yourself to trends and events that are going on in the world, but sometimes this strategy is taken too far," said Mark Pasetsky, director of New Media for Middleberg & Associates, a well-known New York public relations firm. "People need to know the facts, but does there need to be a public forum for discussing a plane crash? I say no."