The Net Pulls Together on Tsunami Efforts

Friends and family desperate to learn the fate of loved ones thousands of miles away in South Asia are turning to the Internet to plead for news of those who survived the weekend's tsunami disaster -- and who didn't.

"My father, Leonel Rodrigues, Portuguese citizen, is missing. He was last seen holding on to a tree inside the Meridien Resort/Hotel in Khao Lak, Thailand," reads a message posted on a special missing persons Web page set up by the BBC. "He was wearing blue swimming trunks. Please help, please!" added Filipa Rodrigues of Macao, who posted the message.

On a similar message board at LonelyPlanet.com, an Englishwoman wrote: "I am desperately looking for my 19-year-old son called Eddie Gibson. ... He was backpacking around Cambodia and Thailand. I have not heard from him. He is fair, 6ft tall and blue eyes, with a scar on his right wrist."

In some cases, the Web can bring good news. At LonelyPlanet.com, a poster named "Trix" posted a plea for information on a friend who was in Thailand as part of the U.S. Peace Corps. Within minutes of her post, another blogger posted a reply, quoting from the official Peace Corps Web site that "all 84 volunteers serving in Thailand have been contacted and verified as safe."

Another poster on the BBC site was able to share the good news that he had learned that his mother, vacationing in the Maldives, was safe. "My thoughts go out to all those who like me spent a long time trying to contact my Mum and I hope you all have as much luck as me," wrote Alex Lye of Crawley.

In addition to established travel and news sites, countless blogs, or online diaries, have sprouted up to help Web users locate missing friends and relatives.

However, most of the postings go unanswered, or -- worse yet -- get news that can't be confirmed. One anonymous poster at a blog site said she had managed to locate a friend at the Thai Muang hospital in Phang Nga, but couldn't verify if she was alive or dead.

Immediate and Intimate News

The blogs also provide first-person accounts of recovery efforts, and information on how to help.

The attraction to such sites has been astounding. At the newly created South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog, more than 100,000 visitors have been sharing information such as where to volunteer for recovery efforts and official phone numbers for foreign embassies in the tsunami-affected areas.

Its founder, a writer in Bombay, India, fears that such traffic could cripple SEA-EAT, which is hosted at a public Web site, tsunamihelp.blogspot.com. But other bloggers say they are ready to step in and host "mirror" sites so SEA-EAT's vital information is always available despite any online traffic jams.

Howard Rheingold, a computer industry luminary who was involved with the first electronic "bulletin board" systems in the mid-1980s, believes the rapid rise of online tsunami relief efforts is just the latest evolutionary stage of what he calls "smart mobs." These groups of individuals use the Internet and other communications devices like cellphones to quickly share information and spur action -- much like tech-savvy groups were able to rally support for candidates in the recent U.S. presidential elections.

"If you can smart-mob political demonstrations as what happened in the U.S. elections, you can smart-mob disaster relief," says Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution." "It's the grassroots efforts at getting and distributing information."

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