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BLOGS OFFER PERSONAL ACCOUNTS OF LIFE WITH SARS

On the Web, he's Richard, the Peking Duck, a poignant observer in the middle of the SARS epidemic.

Like other "bloggers," his Internet site is part of an underground online community that has grown in influence since the war in Iraq amid the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Blogs, short for Web logs, are an information junkie's dream come true, and an increasing number of people are seeking them out. In the case of SARS, they instantaneously bring to a global audience firsthand accounts of the disease that mainstream media can't or won't offer.

Many SARS blogs read like war dispatches from the front. Others are more difficult to categorize, mixing diary entries, commentary, photographs, documents, news and links. What they all share, and what makes them all different, is how they reflect the personalities of their creators.

"Beijing is not an easy place to live during the very best of times," noted Richard Burger, the expatriate behind the Peking Duck. "But during a veritable panic, when the city seems to hover on the brink of total breakdown, closing its schools and businesses and hospitals, . . . during a time like this, it's hard not to feel as though you are being slow-roasted on a spit."

SARS-related Web logs have spread with the disease, especially in countries where the governments tightly control the news and where people hunger for information.

Jian Shuo Wang, a project manager in the Microsoft Global Engineering Center in Shanghai, started a blog in September and, naturally, began writing about SARS as the disease worked its way across the continent.

"By providing accurate information about SARS in English, I believe I am helping people, so I continued," he said.

He describes how SARS has given daily life a dreamlike quality.

Every taxi is equipped with a bottle of disinfectant. A notice outside an office building elevator reads, "Disinfected every hour." He goes for a haircut, and the barbers and customers are all wearing face masks.

The masks are so common that it did not take long for merchandisers and do-it-yourselfers to turn them into a fashion statement. His Web log is among those that have had fun displaying photos of the growing multitude of face mask colors and styles, including polka dot and leopard print.

Wang describes how all the employees in the restaurants he frequents, including KFC for fried chicken, wear masks, as required by authorities. And he watches anxiously one night as the employees hurriedly spray disinfectant on the chairs and tables as soon as diners pay their bill and leave.

"On one hand, I feel safe in this restaurant because it is assured that disinfection is thorough," he says. "On the other hand, will they use the same standard after I leave? Am I treated like a virus carrier?"

Outside, on the street, he notices five young Japanese men.

"You can always clearly tell Japanese from local people in China from the clothes and the faces," he says. "What I totally cannot understand is that one of them was smoking while wearing a mask. He just removed the mask for a little opening, smoked the cigarette and covered his face again using his mask -- unbelievable."

Burger, meanwhile, recently left Beijing for Bangkok, Thailand, saying life in the Chinese capital was too harsh. He compares the Chinese response to SARS to the country's repressive and secretive approach to HIV/AIDS.

"This sweeping-under-the-carpet of a nationwide health threat shows us just how much the Chinese leadership still places 'social stability' over all else," said Burger, who works in public relations. "They are terrified of any discontent among its populations. Why else bother hiding SARS patients in ambulances to deter WHO (World Health Organization) inspections?"

The personal journal has been around for a long time. But with Web logs, the computer has allowed it to morph into something altogether different and unstructured.

The phenomenon of blogging came into its own in recent years with the introduction of inexpensive software designed to make it easy for anyone to publish an online journal. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of blogs in operation.

Tim Bishop, a software engineer with an interest in the threat of emerging infectious diseases, runs one of the best of the 30 or so Web logs with a connection to SARS. His SARSWatch is more like an unofficial information site than a journal, collecting articles and providing links. He is not shy about offering a perceptive observation.

"When the epidemic started, I thought people needed to get the word out that this was a big deal. The site has just grown since then," said Bishop, president of Onscreen Systems in Berkeley, Calif. Late last month, SARSWatch received 60,000 "hits" in one day from Internet surfers, half of them from Asia, where the epidemic has sickened thousands.

Similar "newsy" SARS sites include the bulletin board moderated by Docbear at the Agonist and the SARS Info Center operated by Vernon Lee in Singapore.

A Zoo Out There, published in Singapore by Dr. Jen Jen, offers a glimpse of life through the eyes of a struggling young Chinese physician training to become a specialist in emergency medicine.

Big White Guy out of Hong Kong is put together by a former Canadian who's a professional writer, and his witty, perceptive comments show it.

Surf blogs at your own risk. There are no editors, and no way to know whether all the information is reliable.

As for the growing popularity of the sites, the reasons vary.

"The Web allows anyone to be a publisher," said Alexander Halavais, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo. "It's not that people are not getting enough news. It's that they're looking to connect the facts to a larger culture, to make sense of the news."

Others see them more like a global water cooler. People worldwide can meet, share news, debate, grieve or laugh over a good joke.

Bishop, who spends hours maintaining his site, says blogs are not easily defined, even by those who publish them, because they come in so many flavors. "Blogs allow news to be more of a conversation," he said. "They allow for dissident voices. They filter information through a personal point of view."

e-mail: hdavis@buffnews.com

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