Video: Virtual world becomes Haiti's lifeline

  1. Closed captioning of: Virtual world becomes Haiti's lifeline

    >> this crisis.

    >>> we are back from haiti tonight. an estimated 3 million people in just the quake zone here. millions of people walking around on the move tonight. they need food, they need water, they need shelter. they need power. and while there is a great need for infrastructure, a lot of them at least have the internet. that aspect of the story tonight from los angeles and nbc's lee cowan.

    >> reporter: the haitian disaster may be the internet's greatest test of its capacity for good. during no other disaster has the world community depended on cyber space as much as they are right now.

    >> everybody wants to see a photo, they want to see a video. they really want to feel like they're part of this cause.

    >> reporter: facebook turned into a heart-wrenching clearinghouse of the missing. 1,500 status updates involving haiti every minute. someone named manny is looking for news of erica. geraldine is looking for news of anyone.

    >> these technologies have grown the ability to reach out across the world in ways that the traditional systems just could never do.

    >> reporter: at the mission church in southern california , 11 missionaries were missing. everyone feared the worst, until by miracle, it seemed, a tweet came through.

    >> we didn't have the communication we have, it would be an even longer time we wouldn't be able to hear.

    >> just by some kind of miracle we just got out.

    >> reporter: for airman coles, skype is the only link he's had with his brother in haiti , although the news is grim. not knowing would be even worse . and just as social networking sites have been invaluable getting out the basic information, they've been just as indispensable raising donations. the red cross raised $3 million simply from people texting on their cell phones. hip-hop artist and haitian native is using texting, too.

    >> he has over a million followers on twitter. if all these people send it to their people and send it to their people, there is something significant and historical that could happen.

    >> reporter: misery of historic proportions is being met by general rossity and ingenuity just as historic. lee cowan, nbc news, los angeles .

updated 1/14/2010 5:10:16 PM ET 2010-01-14T22:10:16

Some Facebook users who are trying to find or communicate with missing family members in Haiti may find themselves out of luck on the social networking site if they send too many messages.

“In the wake of the disaster in Haiti, some Facebook users have sent numerous messages at a rapid rate," said Andrew Noyes, Facebook's public policy communications manager. “In very rare cases, users may have triggered an automatic system that is intended to prevent spam,” and found themselves blocked from sending any more messages.

The company declines to say what the message limit is — mainly to deter spammers from trying to beat the system. But, said Noyes, users are always given warnings “when they’re getting close to hitting the limit for a given feature.”

When that limit is hit, he said, and “after a certain number of warnings, (users) must go through a process that educates them about how they may have been misusing our features. At that point, access is fully restored. Those who do not comply could be temporarily disabled.”

Both Twitter, the micro-blogging site, and Facebook, which has more than 350 million members worldwide, have been key avenues of communication for those trying to get and to provide information about what is going on in Haiti, or to reach loved ones, following Tuesday's devastating earthquake.

“Every minute” since the quake became known, “people have been posting more than 1,500 'status' updates on Facebook that contained the word ‘Haiti,’” said Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg on Facebook.

Facebook has a limit (on messages), but it's not a flat number," said Nick O'Neill, founder and editor of, a blog about Facebook. “It's based on a number of factors, including the number of friends you have and the number of messages you get on a daily basis.”

Noyes said it's not yet known how the volume of site traffic tied to the earthquake compares to two other news events of worldwide interest in the past year, the Iranian presidential election and Michael Jackson's death.

Zuckerberg, who manages Facebook's relationships with nonprofit groups, and is co-founder Mark Zuckerberg's sister, Thursday introduced the site's “Global Relief” page, where Facebook users “can educate themselves and find out how to help not only in Haiti but wherever disaster and misfortune may strike.”

She also said she hopes the page will be a “collaborative resource for individuals, non-profits, governments and industry to raise awareness for those in need around the world.”

In the meantime, information about Facebook's limits are posted on the site's “help” page, including this reponse regarding being blocked from sending messages:

“Facebook has determined that you were sending messages at a rate that is likely to be abusive. Please note that these blocks can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Unfortunately, we cannot lift the block for you.

“When you are allowed to resume sending messages, keep in mind that it’s possible to run into a block based on how many messages you send and how fast you send them. It’s also possible to be blocked when either starting a new message thread or replying to a message.

“Lastly, deleting old messages will not allow you to send more messages. In the future, please proceed with caution to avoid hitting the limit again. Please be aware that further abuse of such features can result in your account being permanently disabled.”

Users who are blocked “can always write to our appeals queue if they feel they’ve been treated unjustly,” using the "contact" for in the “warnings” section of the help page.

“We’re always adjusting and fine-tuning these systems based on how people are using the site and we’re looking into the behavior we’re seeing out of Haiti to analyze how our systems might be improved” he said.

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