Facebook helps tornado victims find lost items

Page links strangers trying to return found photos, documents ripped away by tornadoes

A graduation announcement. A page torn from a calendar, noting a father's birthday. Tattered pictures of children. An ultrasound image of an unborn baby.

These are just some of the documents that people have found after a devastating round of tornadoes ripped through parts of the south this week, killing 300 people. And many people have taken to Facebook to try to find the rightful owners of what could be precious photos and documents.

A Facebook page has been created to help strangers try to return found items to their owners. As of 3:30 p.m. ET Friday, nearly 48,300 people had "liked" the page and many had already posted images of items they've found.

One woman posted a message on the page, saying, "So many people have lost so much... to gain back even 1 pic or document is a miracle!"

"The thing about social media is that it is just a capability, something that people will invent ways to use," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "Both Facebook and Twitter are non-intrusive broadcast media. You can shout your find, or your loss, from the rooftops, but no one has to listen unless and until they want to."

This isn't the first time that people have turned to social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, in the aftermath of tragedies. Just last month, countless users in Japan and around the world took to Twitter and Facebook to reach out to loved ones after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the country on March. 11.

For example, an hour after the quake hit Japan, Online Social Media, which tracks social media services, reported that Twitter was experiencing 1,200 tweets posted every minute. For most of that day, eight or nine of Twitter's top 10 Trending were directly related to the earthquake and tsunami.

The social networking sites also became lifelines for people during the massive earthquakes in Chili and in Haiti last year.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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