In the midst of the mind-boggling disaster of Hurricane Katrina, we are also seeing an interesting -- and unprecedented -- technical phenomenon that may bode well for how we respond to these horrors in the future.
It has to do with the Internet, and what might be called "virtual newsrooms." And it can involve, as in the case over the last few days with Katrina, the most unlikely people. Their role suggests that in the future, the process of getting important information -- and perhaps even warnings -- out to the world may be more fluid and dynamic than we have ever imagined.
Anyone surfing the Web over the last few days following Katrina links for information would have found themselves in the most unlikely places.
For example, Drew Curtis' Fark.com is a wildly entertaining aggregator site beloved by 20-somethings that combines links to various news stories of the day with wry commentaries on them, accompanied by scores of added (often hilarious) comments from readers. It typically has all of the cold-hearted wit and casual cruelty about the misfortunes of others one remembers from that age.
And yet, as Katrina gained force and approached the Gulf Coast, Fark suddenly found its soul, opening a section for Farkers in safe areas to open up their homes for other Farkers in imminent danger. It was an extraordinary act -- one I suspect unprecedented in its scope on the Internet -- something usually done only by religious groups and fraternal organizations. It suggests just how some Web sites have now become the cultural centers for large groups of people.
Meanwhile, as Katrina hit land, another equally-unlikely site stepped to the fore. Terry Teachout is one of America's leading art critics. I've read his writings for years, first in journals such as Commentary, and most recently in the Wall Street Journal. With Laura Demanski ("Our Girl in Chicago") Teachout also runs a cultural Web site at ArtsJournal.com called "About Last Night". It is usually a potpourri of selections from Teachout's reviews, asides about movies, diary entries of various museum visits, and interesting quotes from recent books read. It is one of the most lively and wide-ranging culture blogs on the Web.
But, as Katrina hit, suddenly in the midst of the G.K. Chesterton quotes and Mark Morris dance reviews, Teachout inserted what he called a "stormblog." Basically a list of links to bloggers operating within the hurricane zone, it quickly grew to nearly 30 sites -- and became the essential place to go for first-person descriptions of the crisis. Ominously, throughout the storm, some of these sites would suddenly shut off -- leaving readers to fear for the writers' fates. Only now, as some have reached safety (and power) have they reappeared online to the considerable relief of the readers.
Teachout's stormblog quickly became the essential source for anecdotal information during the disaster. The site, now beefed up with added links to traditional organizations, continues to be a key place to learn about what it is like to be in Katrina's aftermath.