When Ken Whitlow signed up for Internet service last fall, he never dreamed he'd use it to look for Marine Corps buddies from 50 years ago.
There was "one guy in South Carolina that I'd looked for, off and on, for 10 years," says Mr. Whitlow, a retired plumber living in St. Louis. By using a nationwide phone directory on the Internet, he found that friend and 15 others in his battalion who had served in China between 1945 and 1947.
"A lot of them were startled," he recalls. "There was a big, long silence when I told them who I was." But they quickly warmed to the idea. "One guy said it was the best Christmas gift he could have gotten," says Whitlow, who is hoping to organize a reunion.
Using the Internet to find people is becoming popular. When AT&T WorldNet Service surveyed 9,600 of its members recently, it found 40 percent had used the global computer network to locate someone. More than 92 percent said they'd like to do so.
So, starting last week, AT&T opened portions of its site on the World Wide Web to all Internet users. The site lists tips on how to search for people, links to various directories, and access to its own nationwide phone book. Previously, those listings were available only to subscribers of AT&T WorldNet.
Arthur Dash, a WorldNet subscriber and a private investigator in Cherry Hill, N.J., says he's found AT&T's listings to be the most comprehensive. (Type this address into your Web browser - http://www.att.com/worldnet/wis/find/people/people.html - to start searching for people.) But there are plenty of other tools, he points out, that list phone numbers, electronic mail addresses, even maps and driving directions for most of those long-lost roommates and former flames.
Mr. Dash will do Internet searches for as little as $10. But the tools are easy for anyone to use. Most of the major Internet search engines, for example, have links to nationwide phone directories.
Suppose you're looking for an old grade-school pal, Donald Duck. Surf on over to the "find people" feature of Infoseek (http://www.infoseek.com) and you'll find nine Donald Ducks spread from Arizona to Virginia.
The PeopleFind service of the Lycos search engine (http://www.lycos.com) could only track down eight Donald Ducks, but it did give detailed maps showing exactly where each one lived. Linked to a site called MapQuest, it even gave driving directions from my home town.
The Yahoo! People Search (http://www.yahoo.com) netted 13 William Shakespeares in the United States, including a listing for William T. and Debbie(!) from Texas. You can also search by phone number, although the service works much better for businesses than individuals.
WhoWhere? - a handy service at http://www.whowhere.com - offers e-mail addresses. It found 63 Donald Ducks, including the "real" Donald from Disney (Donald@disney.com). It also located nine William Shakespeares on-line, three Christopher Columbuses, and 13 Cleopatras.
(Which one is the real Queen of the Nile? Ask one of the 13 Julius Caesars.)
Searching internationally is trickier. Try http://www. curtin.edu.au/search/people.html or http://www.che.rochester. edu:8080/users/ibis/locate.html as a place to start.
Such tools, particularly the maps, raise privacy concerns. If you're worried, you can remove your name from the directories (although, in the curious logic of the on-line world, you have to be on the Internet to find out how to do it). So far, though, the public reaction has been muted.
"I can't really recall anybody being upset," says Dash, the cyber-detective. "People are usually very flattered that they've been sought out."
* Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my In Cyberspace forum at http://www.csmonitor.com