Is it possible to genuinely grieve for someone you never met? Can one mourn a woman who may have been exploited to death without joining the exploiters? Can any public gesture be free from the taint of profit or self-absorption? These are a few of the pertinent issues raised by the global keening for Diana Spencer. They’ll remain pertinent too: The media, especially Britain’s, may have pledged to back off from Prince William, but judging by past performance, it will be business as usual a year from now.
Yet change is in the air — just not in the old, controlled channels of media. It’s hardly in the interests of, say, the networks to dissect the mechanisms by which they feed us the images we crave, especially when they can just replay the Elton John performance for the 30th time. Their job, as they evidently see it, is to show and interpret — to tell us how to feel. Thus the only way to end-run the established outlets of information, to fully explore the conundrums of our distress in a larger forum, is to go to the Internet.
Pundits have called the unprecedented online mourning for Diana a turning point in the medium’s transition to maturity. They’re right. Jerry Garcia’s 1995 death sparked a wave of Web memorials, but that was largely within the confines of a smaller wired community. This time we’re seeing the vast new Internet mainstream casting about for a way to express a profound sadness and finding it literally at its fingertips. Five days after the accident, the Infoseek Web directory listed more than 300 sites devoted to Diana (www. infoseek.com/Entertainment/Celebrities/Royalty/Diana_ Princess_of_Wales); by the following Monday, there were more than 500. Most of these sites offer ”guest books” to which thousands more have sent heartfelt E-mails. Just a week after America Online set up a condolence bulletin board — with a promise to pass on the posts to the royal family — more than 135,000 AOL users had responded.
If there was any remaining doubt as to what makes the Net different from all other media, here was proof: By crafting memorial websites, gnawing over their own complicity in chat rooms and bulletin boards, or pushing for contributions to charities that Diana had championed, average folks used cyberspace as a privately accessed, publicly shared global commons. Sure, there was much digitized navel gazing, overcooked bathos, and bad poetry going around, not to mention the stray deluded conspiracy site and I Hate Diana page, but most sites were as elegantly sincere as those put up by Hong Kong’s Cutson Liu (www.ee. cityu.edu.hk/~nhliu/), Massachusetts’ Diane Fulco (www.dianaqueenofhearts.com/), and the Paraguay Online Corp. (www.pol.com.py/diana.html).
On the other hand, it was impossible to browse the Big Media websites with anything but cynicism. Precisely because they don’t spring from personal motivation, commercial sites that did more than simply report the news felt contaminated by the desire to cash in. It’s a no-win situation: Both MSNBC (www.msnbc.com) and CNN (www.cnn.com) would have been remiss as news organizations if they hadn’t posted the surveillance footage of Diana and Dodi al Fayed leaving the Ritz, but it still felt repellently opportunistic — and crowing ”Video shows Diana’s last night,” as did MSNBC, didn’t help.