The so-called blogosphere, with its personal journals published on the Web, has become best known as a forum for bruising political discussion and media criticism. But the technology proved a ready medium for instant news of the tsunami disaster and for collaboration over ways to help.
There was the simple photo of a startlingly blue boat smashed against a beachside palm in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, at Thiswayplease.com. "Every house and fishing boat has been smashed, the entire length of the east coast," wrote Fred Robart, who posted the photo. "People who know and respect the sea well now talk of it in shock, dismay and fear."
At Sumankumar.com, Nanda Kishore, a contributor, offered photos and commentary from Chennai, India: "Some drenched till their hips, some till their chest, some all over and some of them were so drenched that they had already stopped breathing. Men and women, old and young, all were running for lives. It was a horrible site to see. The relief workers could not attend to all the dead and all the alive. The dead were dropped and the half alive were carried to safety."
His postings included a photo of a body on a sidewalk with a buffalo walking by. "It now seems prophetic," he wrote, "for according to the Hindu mythology, Lord Yama (the god of death) rides on a buffalo."
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"They are helping us understand the impact of this event in a way that other media just can't," with an intimate voice and an unvarnished perspective, with the richness of local context, Jardin said.
That makes blogs compelling--and now essential--reading, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, an assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University and a blogger. Once he heard about the disaster, "Right after BBC, I went to blogs," he said.
"This notion that we now have eyes and ears around the world is more than something we've grown accustomed to; we've grown to demand it," he said.
Bloggers at Worldchanging.com, some of them living in the affected nations, began chattering immediately after the waves hit and began discussions of ways to help. South Asian bloggers created Tsunamihelp.blogspot.com to direct people to aid organizations. "I haven't seen this level of people saying, 'You know what? We can do something here. We can connect the pieces,'" said Alex Steffen, who lives in Seattle and edits worldchanging.com. "It's mind-blowing, and it's inspiring."
Howard Rheingold, the author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution," about the use of interactive technologies like text-messaging to build ad hoc coalitions, said that using blogs to muster support for aid was a natural next step. "If you can smartmob a political demonstration, an election or urban performance art, you can smartmob disaster relief," he said.
One veteran of the online medium said he was initially "a little disappointed" in the reports he got from the blogs. Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in California, said that with the widespread use of digital cameras and high-speed digital access, he was expecting to see more raw video and analysis.
He said that upon reflection he realized that it was difficult to get information out of hard-hit areas and that putting digital video online is still the domain of "deep geeks" with significant resources. "This brought home to me just how far we have to go," he said.
Jardin of BoingBoing said people online often argued about whether blogs would replace mainstream media. The question is as meaningless, she said, as asking "will farmers' markets replace restaurants?"
"One is a place for rich raw materials," she continued. "One represents a different stage of the process."
Blogging from the tsunami, she said, is "more raw and immediate," but the postings still lack the level of trust that has been earned by more established media. "There is no ombudsman for the blogosphere," she said. "One will not replace the other, but I think the two together are good for each other."
Vaidhyanathan said he was leaving for a long-planned trip to India on Tuesday and, if possible, hoped to visit relatives in Madras. "As long as there is electricity and Internet access, I'll blog," he said.
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