In crisis, people find community online

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The Internet proved its value as a virtual balm following terrorist attacks on the United States last week, bringing friends, families, and even strangers together online for soul-searching and emotional support.

Internet discourse revolved Wednesday around trying to fathom, cope, and communicate. Websites and discussion groups urged blood donation, posted prayers, and debated whether civil liberties may be curtailed.

"The Internet has proven to be a remarkably good way to form relationships and communities," says Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois - Chicago. "We go online to try to make sense of what happened, who to blame, who's in charge, etc.''

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Initially, Internet users went online to find out what had happened. Later, they used e-mail and other tools to find out about how friends and family were doing. The third phase - finding meaning - followed shortly.

Mr. Jones says that while television was good for basic information and analysis, "We go to the Internet for personal stories.''

Discussions were held everywhere. In a newsgroup on DVDs, one participant suggested rebuilding the World Trade Center as a symbol of America's resolve. One poster on a Beatles newsgroup predicted a stronger America growing out of the crisis.

The website for the QVC shopping service devoted its home page to resources on blood donation. Travel site OneTravel.com offered to donate 10 percent of earnings to New York firefighters.

Online clothing retailer Bluefly.com sent online notices offering displaced companies the use of vacant office space. Ken Seiff, the company's chief executive, received several responses within hours.

At an online prayer forum, individuals posted personal prayers for victims and emergency workers. "Television can say, 'We're going to have a prayer meeting at 7 tonight in the park,' but the Internet can actually hold that prayer meeting,'' says David Hollander, a Web designer in Boise, Idaho, who runs a prayer forum.

Abroad, the Internet proved valuable for keeping in touch with loved ones in the United States. Paul Murphy, an Atlanta businessman who has lived in London for the past 18 months, kept in contact with friends and family via e-mail.

In Paris, Odile Sheehan learned of the attacks when a French friend sent her an e-mail. Her phone calls to the US didn't go through, so she logged on. "[A day later], all my friends in New York wrote to say they were alive,'' Ms. Sheehan says. "Everything went through the Internet.''

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