Silicon Insider: Katrina and the Webs

Sept. 1, 2005 — -- 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.

Charity and Hurricane Information in Unexpected Sites

For example, Drew Curtis' 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 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.

To understand the magnitude of that aftermath, the place to go was just as unlikely. Kathryn Cramer lives in Pleasantville, N.Y., with her husband and two kids, and makes her living as a noted editor of science fiction collections. Her site is normally a typical Web journal of a well-educated, liberal, Northeastern mom -- family photos, stories about daily life, recipes, and occasional asides about the environment.

But, in pursuing her own curiosity about the larger, environmental impact of Katrina on the Gulf Coast, she seemed to uncover in herself a kind of genius for topographical explanation. Her site (increasingly with the help of readers) began to marshal images from old satellite photos, Google, recent aerial shots, and breaking images from news stories, to create what is the most compelling narrative around on the sheer, jaw-dropping magnitude of the geographic transformation caused by Katrina.

While the networks were still talking about the New Orleans' levee breaks, Cramer actually showed them, comparing the sites with older aerial photos. And while newspapers talked about the extensive changes to the coastline caused by Katrina's storm surge, Cramer gave us satellite before-and-afters -- showing changes so staggering that even maps will have to be changed.

So useful were Cramer's images that many turned up in places, such as conservative and libertarian sites, that she probably has never heard of, and certainly would not approve. And yet, even she would probably agree that, as knowledge is power, getting those pictures out to everybody and educating people across the political spectrum will be crucial as officials confront decisions on recovery and rebuilding.

By Tuesday, the blogosphere was buzzing, filled with rumor, commentary, and most important, links to the on-the-ground stories coming out of the mainstream media, notably the superb work (under unimaginable pressure) of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. At almost every twist and turn of the story, the Web was hours ahead of the rest of the media.

For example, on Tuesday night, while cable news was still listing the number of dead on the Gulf Coast in the dozens, the arch-conservative site Free Republic carried a posting by a regular Freeper, 'My Favorite Headache,' who said he had just heard from an old buddy, a paramedic called on duty in Gulfport, Miss., who said that he was pulling bodies out of trees and homes "30 at a time" and estimated the losses could be in the thousands.

This set off an avalanche of postings -- numbering more than 2,000 by Wednesday morning -- ranging from prayers for the lost, to conspiracy theories, to outright skepticism that those numbers couldn't possibly be true. Needless to say, within hours, statements by both the mayor of New Orleans and emergency officials in Mississippi and Alabama suggested those dire predictions might well be correct.

Also on Tuesday, the most influential blog of all,, run by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, essentially converted itself into a clearinghouse, not just for blogs writing about Katrina, but more importantly, as the go-to site for Katrina relief organizations. What made this list particularly valuable (beyond the hundreds of thousands of people it would reach) was that it included not just the big aid organizations getting attention on network news, but smaller groups, closer to the disaster, capable of getting help in fast.

Major Events Likely to Prompt More Aggregator Blog Sites

By mid-week, the number of blogs and Web sites devoted to reporting on Katrina, or aiding the relief, were too many to count, even to locate. But of particular note were the Hurricane Katrina Help Wiki, which showed how the "wiki" citizen technology, until now mostly known for creating online encyclopedias, could be used during disasters; Technorati, the blog search engine, which offered a seemingly-infinite number of resource sites; and Craigslist, the mammoth online classified-ad site, which created a lost-and-found list for friends and relatives.

Needless to say, none of these activities operate in a vacuum. On the contrary, one of the greatest powers of the Web is that it enables discrete sites to link with one another. The result is a series of dedicated webs, formed around some topic or historic event, which in turn reside within the larger Web. What this burst of Katrina blogs suggests is that from now on these aggregator blog sites and dedicated webs are going to form spontaneously on the Internet in response to major events. Their size will be dictated by the magnitude of the event, and driven by individuals who, whatever their walk of life, are prepared to bring unique talents, dedication and time to the managing them.They will be equipped to disseminate mountains of usable information to millions of readers with a timeliness and depth no other medium can match.

To say this is ham radio in three dimensions, or a multimedia Early Warning System, is insufficient to capture the richness and the power of this new model. It really has no historic precedents. And just wait a few years, when every cell phone on Earth is Web-enabled.

All of this began just a few years ago with blogs -- "Web logs" -- that now seem humble as the Model T. What we are seeing now -- perhaps something good to come out of the horrors of Katrina -- is a much bigger phenomenon. Maybe we should reverse the term now -- "blog Webs," perhaps -- and try to understand them and how they may help save us in future disasters.

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