International Hunt for Missing Backpacker Harnesses Blog Power

When backpacker Nicole Vienneau set out last year to travel from West Africa to Turkey by way of the Middle East, her family at home in Toronto was confident her 15 years’ experience traveling to far-flung places would stand her in good stead.

But when Nicole, 32, failed to make her usual fortnightly phone call home in April, her brother Matthew’s LiveJournal posts began to strike a grave note. Frantic and thousands of miles away, Matthew Vienneau typed out a desperate plea for help from readers in the region of Syria where she was last seen.

Eight months on, remarkably, the site’s daily updates have become the command center for a global search for Nicole. Manned by hundreds of helpers, the site has bridged the online and offline worlds and has come agonizingly close to locating the missing woman, whose birthday is Thursday. Hundreds of volunteers have interviewed witnesses, checked hotel rooms, translated documents and websites from both Arabic and English, and made heartfelt pleas to the media for coverage.

“This has been a huge thing to be able to do from my office here in Canada,” Matthew Vienneau, an IT contractor, told Wired News. “It’s like I have physically had hands thousands of mile away in Syria. As I started having problems solved by people who had read the blog, I realized that it was an effective tool in finding out information the police were unable or unwilling to follow up on as quickly as I’d like.”

With precious little media coverage outside Canada to give the case the oxygen of publicity, the net has allowed Nicole’s family to not simply feel like they are doing something but to actually circumvent the international complexities and frustrations of coping with foreign detectives and overseas embassies.

Matthew Vienneau is not the only concerned relative tapping what’s becoming known as the “social graph” to locate loved ones. Where once local police and Interpol led the hunt for a missing person overseas, increasingly, those left behind are choosing to coordinate their own online investigations.

On a site set up for Lindsay Ann Hawker (the 22-year-old English teacher murdered in a Tokyo apartment in March) the woman’s family urged readers to buy T-shirts and tote bags from a web print shop bearing a closed-circuit television image of the suspected killer. Hawker’s father has often appeared on TV news shows wearing similar T-shirts bearing the appeal site’s URL. has proved similarly instrumental in the controversial case of four-year-old Madeleine McCann, the British toddler who disappeared in Portugal in May while on vacation with her parents. The girl’s father regularly updates a diary on the site to keep his daughter’s plight in the public eye – and to keep the public in the loop.

When Matthew Vienneau resolved to blog new leads in the disappearance of his sister, the impact was immediate. An influx of readers brought in after a link was submitted to Digg showed Matthew how to trace IP numbers to real-world addresses, helping pinpoint the Syria/Lebanon border town of Al Masra as the origin of Nicole’s last e-mail.

A subsequent web appeal moved Syrian locals to call around to hotels in the region. A world away in Toronto, after Matthew Vienneu blogged the hotel name volunteers had hit upon, another reader, a fellow Canadian traveler, offered to visit and look through Nicole’s luggage.

The effort yielded an all-important description of what Nicole was wearing when she disappeared – something Matthew Vienneau reckons would have taken another month to discern without such help.

So Vienneau updates the site continuously, adding any new scrap of evidence or potential theory “to see what sticks.” As many as 350 contributors have provided vital information that changed the course of the search, he estimates. A parallel site pieces together Nicole’s movements.

“We’ve had volunteers handing out fliers, translating Arabic into English and helping us create Arabic versions of our website,” he said. “Others have put hours into preparing letters and e-mails to different media sources.

“The blog readers have been absolutely critical in finding the dozens of guests at the various hotels in which Nicole stayed. From researching online phone directories to using social networking sites like Facebook and even Friendster…. It’s been absolutely fantastic. At one point, we had a volunteer in the Czech Republic travel to a nearby small town and go knock on the door of a woman in order to see if she was the person who traveled on a bus with Nicole. She was.”

Czech police eventually interviewed the potential witnesses two months after the thread came to light, but by that time, Vienneau already had the information and had acted on it.

The net is an outlet for people like Vienneau and the McCanns who never want to give up hope, suggesting that we are only separated by a few degrees.

“There are not many young people out there today that do not have a MySpace site,” said Cherri Lee, who created a “FindingKJ” MySpace profile when her son, U.S. Navy airman Kenneth Lee, Jr. of Birmingham, Alabama, went missing after failing to report for duty aboard his USS Kittyhawk at Yokosuka, Japan, in May.

“I was able to talk back and forth with many of the sailors on the ship, and I made an appeal to anyone who happened upon my site to forward it to everyone on their friends list,” said Lee. “Since I was communicating directly with people in Japan – sailors, wives of sailors, citizens of Japan – it made me feel as if I was doing something significant to search for my son, and I was.”

Sure enough, Kenneth Lee, Jr. was found a few months after his mother’s profile went live. “I don’t know how I could have made it through the seven months without MySpace and e-mail,” Lee’s mother added. “What did we do before this?”

Despite taking a month off work, traveling to Syria, putting up a $20,000 reward and spending up to two hours a day coordinating his online hunt since April, Matthew Vienneau’s search for Nicole has reached a worrying impasse after word surfaced a killer had been operating in the region where the traveler disappeared.

With fewer leads coming in, Vienneau admits to being caught in a “spiral” of having fewer blog updates to make and is beginning to fear his sister “will never be found.”

“It’s going to take a long time to accept it, though, if we never find out what happened,” he said.