As the worst urban rioting since the 1960s unfolded in Los Angeles, subscribers to the nation's online services pitched in with eyewitness accounts, local news updates and tips on which neighborhoods to avoid -- and which routes to take to safety.
Like other online services, GEnie, which has about 300,000 subscribers nationwide, set up an electronic bulletin board Wednesday when the Rodney King verdict was returned. The bulletin board, which allows any subscribers to swap messages with other subscribers, has been swamped ever since, said Laura Staley, product manager for Rockville-based GEnie.
According to Ms. Staley, the bulletin board started out with general commentary on the King case but quickly escalated into a free-for-all once the rioting began. Since then, she said, GEnie's customers in the Los Angeles area have been deluging the board with eyewitness accounts and updates from local news sources.
"Some of them are listening to police scanners. . . . They are reporting school and business closings, reporting where it's bad and what streets to avoid," she said.
The story was much the same at Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online, which together serve nearly 3 million customers.
Prodigy, a joint venture of Sears, Roebuck & Co. and International Business Machines Corp., posted a new bulletin board as soon as the King verdict was returned. According to Steve Hein, a spokesman for White Plains, N.Y.-based Prodigy, more than 8,000 comments have been logged since Wednesday night. "We're seeing a whole range of opinions," he said.
Likewise, Columbus, Ohio-based CompuServe began seeing active messaging between subscribers as soon as the verdict was returned, said David Kishler, a company spokesman.
The verdict, he said, hit a nerve with subscribers, generating lively, online discussions that have pulled in subscribers all over the country.
"We had the same thing happen with the San Francisco earthquake and the Persian Gulf," he said. "All these situations have generated a good deal of discussion among subscribers."
Communication among online subscribers may have been flowing freely, but telephone communication was another matter entirely.
Kate Flynn, a spokeswoman for Pacific Bell, which serves the Los Angeles area, said that calling into and out of the region had been slowed earlier this week due to heavy volume. That problem had eased as of Friday. But reaching parties in the city was still difficult, she said, because so many people had fled their homes and businesses to escape the rioters.
To help out, Pacific Bell was offering people free voice mail and remote call-forwarding services to customers who had been burned out of or abandoned their homes or businesses. Ms. Flynn said Pacific Bell decided to offer the services on an emergency basis for the next month "so people don't have to be completely disconnected."