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On the World Wide Web, Avenues for Sharing One's Sorrow

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 1997; Page D06

When Beverly Wills of Huntsville, Ala., saw the morning headline, she was shocked, just like millions of others. Her grief moved her to react in a way she never had before -- on the keyboard of her computer.

"The world will sorely miss her!" Wills, a 47-year-old civilian Army employee, typed in a tribute to the late Princess Diana. "I am so sorry for the loss her sons will experience!! God be with you Diana, Princess of Wales!"

As did untold thousands of others around the world, Wills posted her sympathy card to one of the several memorial pages that sprouted almost instantaneously yesterday on the Internet's World Wide Web, providing mourners with a uniquely personal outlet. Major news events routinely prod the wired community to take to their terminals to join spirited debates, but Diana's death provoked an unusual, massive outpouring of condolences. The Internet, so often depicted as a cold, perilous sea of unreliable information, became a comfort medium for anyone with a modem.

"It was a means to express what I was feeling," said Wills, who, like other Internet users, ranked Diana's death as having an emotional impact similar to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "Normally you would not have an address to send condolences out for people so public. Or to do it so quickly. It helps."

In Pleasantville, Calif., Rene Maher, 34, switched on her computer Sunday morning before turning on the TV news, and soon found an unofficial memorial page to which she posted a brief note. "I was determined," said the mother of three. "I just feel so bad for her children. It seems so senseless."

Maher said she has sent such condolence notes before, the old-fashioned way, most recently to the Kennedy family after the death of matriarch Rose Kennedy. "I feel very sad when someone passes who is of great significance to me."

"Her life meant a lot to me," agreed Greg Cundiff, 39, of Baltimore, who also transmitted an e-mail condolence yesterday. "To my thinking she was one of the few truly good people in the world -- not perfect, but good."

Net users could sign an official condolence register at Buckingham Palace's black-shrouded Web site www.royal.gov.uk, but traffic was so heavy that most gave up and posted their notes on unofficial sites, which promised to forward them to the royal family. Poems, prayers in various languages, quotes from Tennyson and Ovid ("Our souls survive this death") were among the tributes on the site at www.etoile.demon.co.uk.

Throughout cyberspace, the general tenor of discussion was the same as off-line: shock at an untimely death, reverence for the princess ("the British Evita," one anonymous messager called her) and seething outrage at the tabloid photographers who bedeviled her. "The ideal penalty," proposed a subscriber to the alt.talk.royalty discussion group, would be "that of Winston Smith near the end of [the novel] `1984.' "

Smith's face was gnawed at by starving rats.

"Humans unite and boycott ALL tabloids that you think would support the mosquitoes that follow these celebrities," blared a Web page urging British grocers to cease the sale of tabloid papers from Sept. 5-12. "Support Princess Diana and her young boys. Don't support her murderers!"

Somebody using a pseudonymous sign-on posted this:

"Subject: Diana -- Corpse Pics -- Exclusive"

Its one-line message: "It's only a matter of time, I guess."

Others turned their Web sites black in mourning -- a display last widely seen after the passage of the ill-fated Communications Decency Act, which attempted to regulate speech on the Internet. (Condolence pages were also quickly assembled after the crash of TWA Flight 800 last year.)

Naturally, in various global chat rooms, a conspiratorial mind-set had already taken hold. On the Internet's Usenet bulletin board, someone quickly created the alt.conspiracy.princess-diana discussion group. The topic engendering the most debate was titled "Not the whole truth about cause of accident?" The bizarre speculation ranged from a palace plot to a hit by the British intelligence agency, MI6.

Some readers of the gossip-oriented news groups searched their own consciences, wondering whether public fixation with the couple had contributed to the tragedy. Several attempted to spark outrage with messages celebrating Diana's death and others posted pornographic pictures.

Most users ignored such flame-baiting nonsense and proffered simple words for a glamorous couple they'd never met. Such as this one: "Jeff and Glenna Sharpe of Fort Wayne, Indiana, send their deepest regrets at the death of Princess Diana and her companion. Our thoughts are with the surviving members of their families."

"It's not like we were completely grieving for her," said Jeff Sharpe, 37, who spent about 15 minutes online after hearing the news. Still, "I feel bad about it," he added. And as anyone who's ever written or received a sympathy card knows, that small thought counts for something. In cyberspace, it also connected him to something much bigger.

News researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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