Websites, powered by broadband connections, became a lifeline for many when mobile phone networks and some telephone landlines collapsed in the hours following the 8.9 scale earthquake.
For many, Twitter, the microblogging site and Facebook, have become the easiest, quickest and most reliable way of keeping in touch with relatives as well as providing emergency numbers and information to those in stricken areas.
Even the US State Department resorted to using Twitter to publish emergency numbers, and informing Japanese residents in America how to contact families back in Asia. Relief organisations used Twitter to post information for non-Japanese speakers to lists of shelters for those left homeless.
Skype, the phone service that operates over the internet, and Google, the information website, also became invaluable resources for those searching for missing relatives.
Many mobile phone networks are unable to cope in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, if hundreds of thousands of customers try to make a call or send a text at the same time, as many Londoners discovered during the July 2007 terrorist incidents.
In Japan mobile phone carriers were limiting voice calls on congested networks, with NTT DoCoMo restricting up to 80 per cent of voice calls, especially in Tokyo. Softbank and Au, rival phone companies, were also affected, with Tokyo residents unable to send text messages to friends and relatives.
Skype, however, continued to work well, as did Facebook and Twitter as well as Mixi, Japan’s most popular social networking site. Jill Murphy, a teacher from Liverpool, said she kept in touch with her 15-year-old cousin via Facebook chat – an instant messaging service run by the popular website. “She was Facebook chatting from under her desk at Yokohama International School, while the quake was going on. It was absolutely amazing.
“She couldn’t contact her parents a few miles away – the phones were down and the trains had stopped running – but we knew she was OK on the other side of the world. Facebook and Twitter are automatically the first place you now go to to find out what is going on.”
Twitter, which allows users to post very short messages – no longer than 140 characters long – became very popular with people trying to find out news. People in Japan used it to post news about how serious the situation was where they were, along with uploads of mobile videos they had recorded.
Frequently these videos were viewed by hundreds of thousands of people before the mainstream media had picked up on them and rebroadcast the footage.
Within an hour, more than 1,200 tweets a minute were coming from Tokyo. By the end of Friday, American time, a total of 246,075 Twitter posts using the term “earthquake” had been posted.
The Red Cross was initially overwhelmed with people using its Family Links website, which helps track people during an emergency. Within a couple of hours Google stepped in, launching a version of its person finder tool for the earthquake, Person Finder: 2011 Japan Earthquake. Offered in both Japanese and English web sites, the tool has a link for people seeking information about friends and loved ones in areas affected by the quake and tsunami and it had another link for people wanting to post information about individuals.
Technology helped in other ways. NHK, the Japanese government television broadcaster, was streaming footage via iPhone applications to viewers on the other side of the world, allowing people thousands of miles away, and even those without televisions, to watch live pictures.