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Active Shooters: When a Closer Look Gets Far Too Close
Snapchat videos expire after 24 hours, but the images they show can remain burned into viewers' memories for far longer.

Online video will take you places you never expected to go. That’s not always a good thing.

I’m a big fan of Snapchat’s Snap Map, which was introduced in June 2017. With Snap Map, you can see videos people are recording in any part of the globe. The map uses colors to show what areas have recent uploads. Just tap one of those areas to see what the locals are up to. I like to use it to travel to exotic beaches, to find out what the scene in Ipanema or Bondi Beach looks like. But I’ve used it to visit Alaska and lots of European cities as well. You find quick, casual videos shot by regular people, so they offer a more intimate look than we’re used to.

I knew Snap Map might be just as interesting during a crisis, and that was in my head on October 2, the day we all heard about the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Early that day I called up Snap Map and tapped the area by Mandalay Bay where the killings took place. At first, I saw videos from the previous night’s Route 91 Harvest music festival. I saw Jake Owen in a bright red shirt singing onstage. Then I saw Jason Aldean in his cowboy hat, and I knew we were getting close. Sometimes the people shooting video turned the camera on the crowd or showed themselves, nodding, smiling. I saw hundreds of people having a good time on a fall night. And I wondered ... Well, you know what I wondered.

Abruptly, the videos changed. Instead of music, I saw mayhem. They showed people hiding behind cars, people piled up against barriers. I could feel their confusion and panic. And that’s where the videos left off.

Work takes me to Las Vegas multiple times a year, and I have family there as well. The city isn’t my idea of paradise, but I feel a certain affection for it. A little later on October 2, after I’d read more articles about the enormity of what took place, I turned to Snap Map again to see if there were more uploads. This time there were no concert videos; it started with the mayhem. I could hear automatic weapons being fired. I was with people as they ran across fields looking for safety. Some—larger, older—walked briskly, and I thought, “Go faster, dammit, go faster,” even though it was all over by then. I was with people as they hid behind a police car, then yelled to move out when the shooter seemed to pause to reload. I saw an older woman look into the camera and tell someone that she loved them, unsure if she would make it out.

The video scenes moved inside, and I saw people hiding in hallways and casinos, yelling to barricade the doors. I saw dazed people sitting in nearby McCarran airport, unsure where to go. The killings over, one video showed the space between the shooter’s window and the stage area, emphasizing how short a distance it was.

The whole viewing experience left me traumatized and heartbroken in a way no news report could. I couldn’t watch anymore, but I also couldn’t not watch. Which is better: Stopping to rubberneck at a tragedy or moving along and not looking at all?

I thought I was done, I told myself I was done, but late in the day I clicked over to Snap Map one more time. This time was different. This time I saw a vigil outside city hall. I saw people lining up to donate blood. I saw a line of cars entering the Las Vegas Convention Center to drop off supplies. One person did something unspeakably awful, and then thousands responded in ways designed to comfort and support. Online video brought me that, too. I saw the worst and then I saw the best.

[This article appears in the January/February 2018 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Active Shooters."]

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