When tragedies like the Japan earthquake strike, many people around the world now pluck much of the news from cyberspace.
Soon after the earth stopped shaking Tuesday in Kobe, Japan, )) e-mail messages began flying over the Internet, the worldwide communications system linking computers, from people exchanging information.
Two prominent Japanese institutions quickly set up what are known as World Wide Web pages loaded with information about conditions and lists of the victims.
Web pages use text, pictures and graphics to provide reams of information, which the user can access by clicking a computer mouse.
And, several Japanese universities in Kobe rapidly got their computers operating and sending out information.
"In the old days, the way you counted on getting emergency communications was through ham radio operators. Now it is through the Internet," said David J. Farber, Moore Professor of Telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Farber, who has been monitoring the flood of communications from Japan Internet, said the situation there was reminiscent of last year's earthquake in California.
"The first news out of the L.A. earthquake came from people with their computers hooked up with wireless systems," he said.
Almost as soon as the tremors stopped in California, those people were using their computers, which were not dependent on phone lines, to send out firsthand descriptions of the tragedy.
In Japan, the telephone system has proved to be remarkably resilient, despite the horrific number of casualties and the extensive amount of property damage, Mr. Farber said.
The flow of information from Kobe has included news from those with direct contact to those affected by the earthquake as well as those anxious about the fate of loved ones.
The Center for Global Communications in Tokyo, which is part of the International University of Japan, as well as Sony Labs in Tokyo, set up Web pages where people could get information on the quake.
Information was made available in Japanese and English.
Among the messages sent over the Net was one from Chuck and Katherine Cary of Destin, Fla. "Be grateful if someone could get a message to Marty Kuernhea. He owns 'The Attic,' a bar in Kobe," they wrote.
"I am seeking information on Mayumi Yokota and family. They live in Nishinomiya," wrote Evan Osborne from Dayton, Ohio.
Condolences came from Allen Chen Wai Lun in Hong Kong.
"I am sorry to hear for the earthquake in Japan and I would like to express my sincere regard here," he wrote, ending his missive with a line of poetry:
"No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn."
Several Internet users sent out general pleas for more information.
"Any damage around Takarazuka?" asked one. "Any news on the damage to the temple structures in the Kyoto area," wondered a third, G. Blomgren, who accessed the Internet through CompuServe, one of the major commercial on-line systems that are increasingly providing Internet access.
Just Tuesday, the Prodigy on-line service announced that it was going to be the first of the consumer net works to open its system to the World Wide Web, which is much easier for novice computer owners to use.
Estimates on the number of computers hooked up to the Internet vary from 20 million to 40 million. Thousands of businesses and educational institutions now offer Web pages, such as those being used from Tokyo on the quake.
Mr. Farber said he expects the user trend to accelerate, with millions more people getting access to the international system and finding it increasingly easy to use.
Mr. Farber noted that several community systems popping up, such as Philadelphia's LibertywNet, which make it easier for people with no special technical orientation to use the Net.
"Even people who have no interest in technology per se use the Net," he said.
"It is not quite the telephone, but it is more like the post office," Mr. Farber said, but much faster than the mail.
Two of the largest software companies, IBM and Microsoft, also are introducing new versions of their operating systems for personal computers that will make it possible for users to just click onto the information superhighway.
Mr. Farber said he tried using IBM's new OS2 Warp system and found it surprisingly easy to operate. He pretended he was a novice.
"It was easier to set up than it was to set up my video tape recorder, which I still haven't figured out," Mr. Farber said.