Admittedly, we are still a long way from the concept (or frightening prospect, depending on your point of view) of a "wired democracy", where people vote and voice their opinions electronically. But this was the first election when political parties had - indeed had to have - their own Web sites, serving up manifestos, flashing slogans and their leaders in prime ministerial pose. Many candidates had their own personal Web sites, too. Watching over this political colonisation of cyberspace was a host of election sites run by news organisations. Both the BBC and ITN had election sites, staffed by dedicated "cyber-hacks" and boasting live video and sound feeds. Sky was running a telephone exit poll via its site.
Newspapers, including The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph, were also providing Web coverage, offering "real-time" results, news pictures, chat forums and virtual swingometers. Most simply required you to log on to the home page to use their services, although it was perhaps surprising that the Telegraph and Times sites did not abandon their online registration demands for the night.
On election night, the response from Internet users in Britain and the rest of the world was overwhelming. Literally. Soon after polling stations closed at 10pm, the BBC and ITN sites were swamped with eager Net surfers. People logging on from home, on standard telephone lines, suffered most. Instead of getting the first dramatic results, they were forced to stare at screens saying "Busy" or "This site is not accepting connections, please try later." Several sites actually went down for a while when traffic became too intense. Yet although all the Web publishers contacted by The Independent agreed that election night had been their biggest test, none admitted to any serious problems in meeting demand.
"We had no idea what the traffic would be like on the night," says Garron Baines, who oversaw ITN's election site. It also had to handle traffic from CNN's site, because the American network had an ITN link on its site. The BBC actually increased its capacity as the night wore on, using extra servers at its Kingswood Warren research centre. "I think we coped much better than US Web sites did in the US election," says Bob Eggington, project director of the BBC's Online News section. The Press Association, which was supplying results to the GE97, MSN and Line One sites in addition to its own Web service, was under extreme pressure. "We doubled our band- width for the election, but it was very tight at times," says Mark Hird, the PA's new media director.
Needless to say, every Web publisher claims to have been the fastest at getting results online. But with such frequent problems getting through to each site, it was difficult to judge. Both the BBC and ITN Web sites were carrying their own exit polls before 10pm and had the first constituency result - Sunderland South - online within a minute of the declaration. As with many sites, results were posted automatically on The Independent's Election 97 pages as soon as they came in. "Our results table was being updated every 60 seconds," says Alex Dale of VirginNet, which ran The Independent's Web coverage.
MSN's Decision 97 seemed to be a little slower with results, but it made up for this with some great news photographs - including a powerful close- up of Neil Hamilton, finger in mouth, as the count was announced. CNN Interactive was another front-runner and also boasted comprehensive reports and analysis.
On many sites, one of the most popular features proved to be chat. "Our chat forums were especially busy, as well as our sound feed from Talk Radio," says Alex Dale. ITN says its photo-caption competition got a very good response. Surprising really, considering that the prize was a Channel 5 T-shirt.
The really big contest, of course, is which site received the most traffic. Predictably, every Web site editor contacted claimed their highest-ever levels of traffic. But there are lies, damn lies and Web statistics. With no universally agreed definition for Web usage, and no independent research body equivalent to the organisations which gauge TV and radio figures, publishing actual traffic counts is a mug's game. Let's just say that all election sites had an exciting night.
What, though, of the Conservative Party's Web site in the aftermath of their meltdown? Perhaps they are still too shell-shocked to find the appropriate response online. Because when I last logged on, John Major was still beaming from the home page above a message saying: "I look forward to a bright Conservative future - happy websurfing!"n