Web helps Americans connect during their darkest hour

"IHAVE JUST learned of the safety of a friend. I can't even begin to imagine the pain that you all must feel. I have the luxury of hugging my wife and children today and will NEVER again take this simple act for granted. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you. If there is anything that we can do please let us know. God, please bless all of us at this, humanity's darkest hour."

I found this posting on the Disaster Message Service (www.disasterboard.com), a Web-based bulletin board founded in 1995 to help Caribbean victims of Hurricane Marilyn contact their friends and families.

DMS has served the public through six years of storms, fires, earthquakes, floods, droughts, volcanic eruptions, civil wars and other disasters, man-made and natural. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, thousands turned to DMS again, some to tell the world they were alive, some to post anguished pleas for help with descriptions and photos of of missing family members, and many just to offer sympathy, encouragement and prayers.

Dozens of similar message boards appeared overnight - some established by giant Internet providers such as America Online and Prodigy, others by individuals searching for their friends and families as the phone system in New York City collapsed and the Washington area's slowed to a crawl.

Elsewhere, those who were safe but couldn't get through to relatives often turned to e-mail. Instant messaging systems and chat rooms on AOL and other services turned into group therapy sessions for thousands who wanted to vent their fears, frustration and anger.

Indeed, if there was any triumph of information technology in the moments and days following the Sept. 11 attacks, it was the Internet's ability to get people together when other means were unavailable.

"In this great moment of angst, it was a very powerful tool," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which polled 1,226 American adults in the two days following the attack. Slighlty more than half described themselves as Internet users.

Overall, Rainie said, 7 to 8 million people turned to the Internet because they couldn't get through to family and friends on the phone. Almost twice that number posted or read comments in online communities. An overwhelming majority of Internet users sent at least one e-mail about the crisis.

But the public's insatiable demand for information about terrorist attacks illustrated one of the Internet's major drawbacks - it just isn't a very good medium for delivering breaking news, at least on this scale.

In fact, more than 80 percent of Americans - Internet users and nonusers alike - said they got most of their news about the attacks from TV. Only three percent of Internet users said they got most of their news from the Internet.

One reason is an inherent problem with the Internet's design. Unlike TV, which was designed to broadcast from a single source to a large audience of passive viewers, the Internet is really a many-to-many medium.

Anyone sitting at a computer with an Internet connection can theoretically reach any other computer on the Internet. The problem is that these computers communicate with each other one transaction at a time.

When you click on a link or type an address into a Web browser, your computer makes contact with the host computer (known as a server) and requests the page. The server responds by sending information along in tiny packets that may travel along different routes, relayed by different computers on its way to you. There can be a dozen different hands in any transaction, and a single Web page may require dozens of separate transactions, particularly if it's loaded with graphics, photos and advertisements.

Audio and video feeds on the Web involve much more data and require more sophisticated servers. Even then, they're not truly broadcasts - each request is handled on an individual basis.

The powerful servers that host CNN, broadcast network and newspaper sites are designed to handle millions of these transactions per second. Webmasters know there will always be the equivalent of "rush hour," and they have enough equipment to handle a sudden surge of visitors. But their capacity isn't infinite.

Just as the phone system bogs down under sudden, ultra-heavy call loads, Web servers can fall way behind when they're faced with an onslaught of millions of visitors, each of whom requires individual attention. The result - nothing happens when you ask for a Web page.

That's exactly what occurred on the morning of Sept. 11 as word of the terrorist attack spread, and millions of surfers turned to their PCs for information.

Throughout much of the day it was difficult, if not impossible to reach CNN.com, the New York Times, the Washington Post, SunSpot (The Sun's Web site) and almost every other breaking news page. This proved enormously frustrating to millions of office workers without access to TV who turned to the Web for the information they so desperately wanted.

Overall, the Pew survey found, 43 percent of Interent users - 45 million people - had problems getting through to the sites they wanted on Tuesday. Almost 60 percent of them went elsewhere or gave up entirely.

By the end of the day, large Web sites were adding server capacity or borrowing it from non-news operations. Their designers stripped home pages to the bone, eliminating graphics, flashing banner advertisements and other design elements that take too much time and bandwidth to deliver.

TV, on the other hand, faced no such constraints. To broadcasters, who beam one-way signals to anyone with a television set, it's just as easy to reach 10 million as it is to reach one million. Their viewers didn't care much about interactivity on Sept. 11. They wanted news, and they got it, in the most horrifying, confusing and riveting day of broadcasting in the history of the medium.

Even if Web site operators can develop the capacity to deal with a a sudden influx of millions of visitors, their pages will never have the immediacy of television for breaking news. In fact, Web sites are more like newspapers than TV stations. Their material must be written, edited and prepared for publication before you see it.

Although Web sites can be searched and perused at leisure - an important advantage if you want in-depth information and you're not in a hurry - they can't match the impact of a live broadcast that can switch instantly from terrified crowds in New York to a burning Pentagon in Washington to an exploding ammunition dump in Kabul. And, while it's technically possible to broadcast live on the Web, there isn't enough bandwidth to handle transmissions to millions of simultaneous users.

The technology lesson of Sept. 11 is the Web is at its best when we use it to communicate with others.

Let's hope we find more occasion to use it for its intended purpose, the exchange of information and ideas - rather than grief, anger and sorrow.

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