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Online masses text to offer Haitian quake relief

After a highly destructive 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit the impoverished island nation, groups started picking up on the latest form of microdonation: text messaging.


The Web was flooded with people hunting for news updates on Tuesday and Wednesday following a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. People were also looking online for ways to help.

With envoys saying that much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, has been leveled and a death toll expected to run into the thousands, it was obvious early on that the catastrophe would require significant relief efforts on behalf of both governments and nonprofits.

These days, it's not a surprise anymore when much of the breaking news surrounding a natural disaster is first sourced from Twitter. Nor are tweets about an earthquake anything new: Twitter's hometown of San Francisco is subject to many a Bay Area tremor, and the U.S. Geological Survey is experimenting with use of the platform to aggregate data. And fast, viral online buzz about microdonations is now a familiar concept in disaster relief.

This time, however, text-message donations really stood out among the Twittering masses in a way they haven't before.

The most prominent online campaign to solicit small donations may be on behalf of the American Red Cross, which is encouraging people to text "HAITI" to the short-code 90999. It'll automatically donate $10 to Red Cross relief efforts and charge users' cell phone bills.

Additionally, musician Wyclef Jean, who is a Haitian immigrant and operates an education-focused Haitian activist group called Yele Haiti (and also has well over 1 million Twitter followers), has encouraged people to text "YELE" to the short-code 501501 to automatically donate $5--even though heavy volumes of traffic had already downed Yele's own Web site.

Joe Green, founder of Facebook-based charity platform Causes, posted a video of the destruction in Haiti; the Causes page provides links to donate as well as a ranking of the members who have shared the video the most. For more places to give online, the San Francisco Chronicle has amassed and continues to update a list of legitimate organizations seeking donations.

There have also been attempts to organize and structure some of the dialogue surrounding the disaster's aftermath: Twitter users have started "hashtagging" the term #Haiti for easier searching. And The New York Times' Lede blog posted an entry overnight on Tuesday to encourage people affected by the earthquake to use the comments section as a forum to post updates and get in touch with others.

With a frenzy of information-seeking and sharing related to the Haitian earthquake, coupled with other major news events like Google's threats to pull its business out of China and (on a far more trivial note) the ongoing battle over NBC's late-night talk show lineup, Twitter experienced its highest usage day ever. Co-founder Evan Williams announced Tuesday that "by all metrics that matter" usage had hit an all-time high.