When it comes to breaking news, TV is still the swiftest of media, and print the most comprehensive. But as the devastating Oklahoma City blast demonstrated, the Internet offers a dimension that no traditional channel of information has ever provided: interactivity. Only hours after the April 19 bombing, thousands of people could be found on the information superhighway, not only reading reports from the scene and viewing uploaded video footage but also searching for word of loved ones, expressing outrage, and seeking solace in the company of other shaken observers. ''People want to share their responses to traumatic events,'' says Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties group. The Internet ''provides a sense of community for people who otherwise might feel very dislocated.''
Clearly, the explosion marked a critical moment in the development of the Net: a test of a virtual community in the face of an all-too-real catastrophe. What were the blast's aftershocks in cyberspace and, more to the point, how did this youngest of mass media respond to them?
It's a global village, after all. Within minutes of the blast, computer users in Oklahoma City were disseminating information to the rest of the world's on-line community. Within hours, offers of aid came back. ''If you need to get a message through to Montana, let me know ... Our thoughts and prayers are with you all,'' wrote one of many on-line Samaritans.
Four hours after the bombing, a company called Internet Oklahoma (ionet) had created a World Wide Web site devoted to the tragedy. Among the services provided were a list of known survivors, hospital phone numbers, and up-to-the-minute news. At its peak, the site was being visited by more than 3,500 users an hour. ''For several hours,'' says Phyllis Johnson, ionet's executive vice president, ''we became the information center for the world.''
The fervor with which people were responding to the site indicated another need: The day after the bombing, ionet set up an on-line prayer service so people could transmit spiritual missives electronically. Over the next week and a half, more than 1,000 prayers were logged.
All the news that's fit to download ... Shortly after the blast, the University of Oklahoma's newspaper posted a bulletin on its website. With coverage provided by 10 student reporters at the scene, the Oklahoma Daily page quickly became the clearinghouse of bomb-related information for news outlets worldwide. The page was accessed 3,000 times on the day of the blast, and 20,000 times the following day. ''They deserve an electronic Pulitzer for how quickly they got stuff up,'' says Gian Trotta, an associate editor at Pathfinder, Time Inc.'s website.