IN the hours that followed Monday's early-morning earthquake in the Los Angeles area, the digital highway ceased to be a futurist's dream and became a lifeline.
Perfect strangers used a number of electronic bulletin boards to pass along information and offer their assistance. With telephone lines down and news still scarce, electronic mail was often the only link between friends and family members.
``Since the phone companies have cut off long distance phone service into the LA area due to the earthquake, I'm trying CIS [CompuServe Information Service] to make contact with a friend's daughter who lives in the LA area,'' wrote Alan R. of Cincinnati the day of the earthquake. (To protect the privacy of electronic bulletin-board users, the Monitor has not included last names.) In his message, Alan included the girl's name and telephone number.
A reply came within 30 minutes: ``Alan, Mary Ann is fine and can now receive calls,'' wrote CompuServe member Ed C. ``Doing well and says thanks for your concern.''
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people got news the same way. ``I'm looking for a person by the name of Danie,'' wrote Prodigy user Nathan N.
E-mail lines busy
In 33 minutes, Rick C. had an answer: ``I called Danie for you.... She is fine. A little bit of damage due to the fact that the fault runs right under her house ... and she has no water. BUT ... everything is fine.''
Electronic mail came pouring in from all over: ``I live in Oman [in the Middle East] and am worried ... about friends who live in the area,'' wrote one CompuServe user.
Shu T., using an Internet link in Japan, queried about family members in Sepulveda, Calif.
While southern California computer users were busy contacting people locally, their counterparts elsewhere were volunteering to contact out-of-state family members for Californians who couldn't get through by phone.
Offers of help
Within a day and a half of the quake, Prodigy members from virtually every United States area code were offering to contact relatives in their area.
``I am too far away to call people. I am only 15-1/2,'' wrote Prodigy user Jessica M. a day after the quake. ``But I want to do something to help people.''
Lorelei W. had an answer: ``We have distant relatives in Northridge whose home was demolished. I am sending them gift certificates from Sears. I am also contributing to the Red Cross.''
Sometimes the electronic discussions veered off in different directions. Many users worried that earthquake relief would raise their taxes.
Others wondered why anybody would live in California, while native Californians jumped to their state's defense.
Still others passed on advice. ``Check your replacement insurance, and get the kind that guarantees replacement monies,'' suggested Sharon T. on CompuServe. ``Not having a family ... it's nice to talk to CompuServe users while I ride this out.''
Then there was Linda, who wrote a long open letter about Jerry, her former love and continuing source of inspiration. ``Please let me know if my `inspiration' still stands strong,'' she asked Prodigy users. ``He is very, very frightened of earthquakes.''
Love on the line
Nobody knew Jerry's whereabouts.
But that didn't stop people from responding: ``In the midst of all this crisis,'' wrote Mark A., ``it is nice to know that true love still exists.''