Proof that the Internet will continue to play a key role in mobilizing Americans and serving as a virtual gathering hub in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks came from an unlikely source last week: President George W. Bush.
Bush -- whose administration has given low priority to Internet industry issues and offered little public information about the attacks on its Web sites in the days immediately following -- urged Americans to use the Web to offer aid. "Internet portals [are] providing an interesting opportunity for people to contribute and provide their help," Bush said.
The presidents remarks came as he introduced the American Liberty Partnership (www.libertyunites.org), an online clearinghouse for more than 30 charities and relief agencies that was created by Amazon.com, AOL Time Warner, Cisco Systems, eBay, Microsoft and Yahoo!.
Attorney General John Ashcroft also extolled the virtues of the Web, announcing last week that the FBI had received more than 47,000 leads through the "tips" site it set up after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11. Meanwhile, the official site for the White House (www.whitehouse.gov) began offering fact sheets on the Bush administrations efforts and its discussions with U.S. allies, as well links to federal agencies that offer assistance to victims.
But while the Internet may have finally made it onto the agenda in Washingtons highest political circles, online users needed no such urging. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, said the most interesting use of the Web his organization has charted is "the degree to which large numbers of people are going to virtual town squares to be consoled, expressing their anger, looking for new information."
In the days since the Pentagon was targeted and the World Trade Center destroyed, e-mails that ask Americans to do everything from participating in candlelight vigils to buying shares in U.S. companies have been making the rounds.
Paul Saffo, director of Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank, received an e-mail urging Americans to write and thank the government of Pakistan for its support of the U.S., complete with the e-mail addresses of Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf and key Pakistani government officials.
Not all information being passed around on the Web is good.
But Douglas Rushkoff, author of several books on new media and popular culture, including Cyberia and Media Virus, said the Internets effect on culture and society in general is a positive one, because it allows "for the proliferation of ideas" that will ultimately help combat terrorism.
"The reason why these people were able to bomb and kill themselves is that they were programmed," Rushkoff said. "The reason they were able to be programmed is because they live in a world without interactive media."