Like Faces on a Virtual Milk Carton: Searching for the Missing Online
Thanks to the internet, you don’t have to leave your house to be a voyeur. You don’t even have to look out your window. It’s old news that there’s really nothing we normally do in person that can’t now be done on the web, and that includes helping search for the missing in Haiti and mourning the crash victims of Ethiopian flight 409. The past month has been a particularly harsh one, for our country, yes, but especially internationally as the earthquake in Haiti and the Ethiopian Airlines crash off the coast of Lebanon left thousands grieving and thousands more wishing they could somehow help. Though most of us are stuck on native soil watching the disasters unravel in papers, on televisions, and online, the internet has provided ways we can help and condole from our desk chairs.
The New York Times hosts an interactive feature for the missing in Haiti that feels like the back of a virtual milk carton. The home page displays a photo of a young girl in a yellow dress; a smiling man in a cap and gown, the blue tassel hanging to the left; an older man leaning back in an easy chair, smiling while he reads a book, and many others. Clicking on a photograph directs you to a page with the person’s name, their last known location, and comments from the friends or family who posted the photo. The family of the man in the cap and gown posted, “Davidson is DEAF and in his 20′s. He and his wife live in Port-au-Prince…There has been no contact with friends in the US and nobody here can make contact with anyone in Port-au-Prince. Please help!!!” Beneath the description is a field for anyone with helpful information to leave a comment. You can also type “found” into a search box on the site’s homepage to see a list of names of people that have been located. Next each name it says either (Found, Alive) or (Found, Deceased).
It’s unclear how effective the site has been in its goal of connecting the missing in Haiti with the people looking for them overseas. The Times posted daily updates on who has been found immediately following January 12th, but that seems to have tapered off around January 16th. As we move farther from the day of the quake, the site is reminiscent of the trees tied with ribbons, tacked with letters and photos, and covered in melted candle wax that mark accident sites along main roads. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also maintains a Family Links Site for those “seeking to restore contact with family members after the earthquake in Haiti.” There are three links on their page: “List of Names,” “I am Alive,” and “Missing Relative.”
The crash of Ethiopian flight 409 has garnered online support as well, as Facebook users have created a page aimed at supporting and informing those affected by the crash. The group Support of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 Crash, created the day of the crash, offered its “fans” updates on the search effort every few hours (“passenger seats, baby sandals and other debris washed ashore. At least 34 bodies were recovered.” January 25, 2010 10:45 am), and continues to post related status updates like this one from January 29th: “Great News! The black box is found! The flight data recorder, critical to the accident investigation, was located about 4,300 feet under water and would soon be retrieved.”
These online glimpses of other people’s dog-eared family photographs and heartfelt pleas for help take our natural rubber-neck syndrome to its philanthropic potential – an attempt to help, or failing that, to offer support. Prayer and words of comfort have always been immaterial, now they float through our ether in a different way, sent from computers to satellites in space, and back down to earth to a different glowing screen, set before a different pair of eyes, in a very different place.
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