Just as it did during the O.J. Simpson trial and at the death of Princess Diana, the Web has become the virtual town square in which people the world over gather to discuss a highly visible public event.
But this time, the public event arose from a very private tragedy: a case involving an unknown, 19-year-old au pair accused of murdering a child in her care.
Interest in the fate of the chubby-cheeked British nanny, Louise Woodward, has been so great that the Massachusetts Superior Court judge who presided over last month's trial decided to issue his ruling via E-mail to major news outlets.
Judge Hiller B. Zobel had the option of overthrowing the jury's Oct. 30 second-degree murder sentence or reducing the charge, and his move today to switch the sentence to the lesser charge of manslaughter was eagerly awaited on the Web by followers of the case from England to the U.S. and beyond.
Only a couple of logistical problems occurred: a power failure affecting the Internet service provider serving the Cambridge, Mass., courthouse delayed the E-mail for nearly an hour; and Web sites following the case were so swamped with visitors that they were nearly impossible to access. The Boston Globe Web site in particular was overloaded at 10 a.m. EST when the ruling was originally scheduled for release, and access delays are continuing this afternoon.
The ISP serving the courthouse, Software Tool and Dye of Brookline, Mass., lost power this morning during construction by electric company workers, company officials said. Power was restored at about 10:45 a.m., shortly before the ruling was released.
But Netizens don't have to go to the major newspaper sites to find out what is happening in the Woodward case.
At least two dozen individual supporters of the young woman have set up Web sites to lobby for her release. Some of the sites allow visitors to send E-mail, which their operators claim will be sent on to Woodward at the prison that has been her home for nine months. Others offer video interviews with supporters from Woodward's hometown of Elton, England; while others prompt visitors to send in donations to a fund to defray her legal bills.
Most of the private individuals' sites, as well as most of the news sites devoted to the case, feature message boards offering a sampling of people's highly polarized views -- mostly pro-Woodward on the private sites and a more mixed sampling on the news sites.
The following anonymous entry on a site called "Justice for Louise Woodward" (http://www.virgin.net/louise/) is typical:
"So upset by all this. The trial did not get to the truth. I can't help feeling that the parents should be thoroughly investigated. The truth has to come out ... Louise's name has to be cleared. I have done what I can, i.e., E-mailing people, but wish I could do more. We showed what we felt when it came to Princess Diana. Let's do it again!"
The Woodward case may have struck such a nerve among Netizens because of the nearly universal need for two-career couples to hire outsiders to care for their children during working hours, said Frank Connolly, an American University professor who has studied the impact of information technology on society.
"The Web has given people a place to voice opinions, where before they might have kept silent," Connolly said of the proliferation of bulletin boards and other sites devoted to the teen-ager's plight.
With the intense media scrutiny of the trial, as in the O.J. Simpson case, Internet users who saw something of themselves in either the victim's family or in Woodward felt compelled to speak out, he said.
"Seeing so many others expressing your view encourages you to add your voice to the discussion," Connolly said.