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The WebCam Experience
By CS Wagner
Orwell's 1984 opened a whole new paranoia for the American population: Big Brother. But by 1984 the reach of Big Brother's eye wasn't as far into our personal lives as predicted. We had security cameras in most businesses. The media's camera was peeking deeper into the lives of celebrities than ever before. The police were just getting into the camera act by mounting them on city corners and bridges to "watch for accidents and other traffic problems." But the lack of a completely omnipotent government didn't suppress the fears of the populous. And now, more than a decade later, it is still a common belief that the government and big business want in on every aspect of our lives.
The proof is in debit cards that record every purchase with place and time, phone records that note every call, and now there are little "club" cards at grocery stores that record your food buying habits. But is it only Big Brother who's interested in all our little personal habits? The Truman Show suggests that the same public that wants to remain private is very interested in everyone else's private life.
From the suburban wife peering at neighbors behind a slightly open curtain to the high-rise tenant hunting open windows at night with a telescope, we live in a voyeuristic society. Now that technology has caught up to our urges, the Internet has opened a whole new form of voyeurism - the WebCam.
A WebCam is a simple thing. You take a camera and connect it to a computer. Then, you get a program to take snapshots from the camera every couple of minutes and send them to your webpage. Now, the voyeuristic world can see whatever your camera sees, good or bad.
The first WebCams were focused on fairly boring items: a fish tank, the inside of a refrigerator - there was even a SpamCam for those who couldn't see enough of the pinkish meat product. Eventually, some cams were mounted on top of buildings and towers so you could see snapshots of city streets on demand. There were even cams inside computer labs and offices, for no apparent reason.
Then came Jenni. JenniCam (offline) has the honor of being the first HomeCam. A HomeCam is a WebCam that is located in a person's home, displaying that person's personal life to the general Internet world. What was the impetus for such a strange form of voluntary exploitation? "Initially, I bought the camera to update portions of my webpage with pictures of myself," says Jenni. "A friend joked that it could be used to do a FishBowl cam, but of a person. The idea fascinated me, and I took off with it. Initially, the JenniCam had an audience of half a dozen of my close friends, and it spread like wildfire from there."
And wildfire is right. In a study of web traffic on AOL done over three months in late 1997, www.jennicam.org was the most popular website - beating out www.playboy.com. So, the big question: What is on JenniCam that is so exciting? Nothing. Imagine a soap opera with only one main character who doesn't do anything special. Jenni just does what we all do. She gets up in the morning. She dresses for work or school. She eats breakfast. While out of her dorm room, the Cam spends the day watching her closet door, empty bed, or shoerack. She then comes home. She calls friends. She watches TV. She bathes. She goes to bed. And yes, she periodically does get naked. "This site is not pornography," Jenni explains. "Yes, it contains nudity from time to time. Real life contains nudity. Yes, it contains sexual material from time to time. Real life contains sexual material. However, this is not a site about nudity and sexual material. It is a site about real life." In fact, the sex minded will find more nudity in five minutes at Playboy than they will in five weeks at JenniCam.
People seem to find enjoyment by simply spying on someone as they perform their daily habits. And there lies the paradox of HomeCams: If you are performing your life, is it real life? The answer is probably best found on the second runner up in the WebCam popularity contest. Quickly closing in on Jenni is Ana Voog with AnaCam (www.anacam.com). Ana has dedicated her HomeCam to giving up her privacy altogether and showing the world her real life. Why did Ana give up her privacy? She begins by saying, "Privacy is a state of mind." It might sound strange, but this professional musician is strange with her platinum white hair and a habit of painting her body silver or covering it with glued on letters. She further explains, "Well, to tell you the truth. I don't totally know why. I'm just really curious, I guess, to do this as some sort of experiment. I'm very interested in the study of human nature, so this is kind of a study in that, sort of. I guess I just want to see what kind of effect it will have on me and what will happen. Plus, I feel I have a lot of fun things to share, and since I'm an entertainer by nature and profession, it just seemed cool to be able to do it on the net." Ana takes the "real life" aspect of the HomeCam further than Jenni does. She strives to be live on the Internet every minute of every day. In a recent trip to Washington D.C. and New York to do concerts and at an interview on "Vibe" she brought her HomeCam and broadcast everything from the drive to the airport to the actual shows. Because she is a performer by nature, the performance of her life seems more than natural. But does she edit anything? "There are a few things I don't show, like going to the bathroom," she replies.
Soon after hearing about JenniCam, I started thinking a lot about HomeCams. With a strong background in computers, the Internet, and video equipment, I was fascinated by the result of such a simple technical aspect. The idea of actually doing it was like a plague. But the more people I talked to, the more people I found who loved the idea of watching others from the privacy of their own home.
Luckily, as I was advising others on the requirements of setting up a HomeCam, I was working for a company that had an endless supply of computer and camera equipment. I connected a camera in my office and pointed it at my desk. I never felt imposed upon by the invasion of the OfficeCam. I felt connected. At any time, someone somewhere could be looking into my office. I also found that others would find many reasons to be around my desk, just to be on camera. I never tracked the number of viewers the OfficeCam received. That wasn't important. It was just the feeling of having your life open for examination by others.
As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." When I left that company, I left behind the OfficeCam. I didn't start a HomeCam for a long time because of the cost. Eventually the cost dropped and I entered the WebCam society again in a more personal setting - my home (shaunwagner.com/webcam.html). HomeCams have actually exploded since the advent of the JenniCam. At www.homecams.com, The Nose has worked to provide a complete index of all HomeCams on the Internet. At this time there are over 500 cams listed and new ones going online every day. It used to be rather expensive to drop your modesty and open your life to the world. If you already have a camcorder and a webpage, you can have a HomeCam running for $10-$50. If you don't have a camcorder, the cost may rise to $100-$200. Either way, the cost is extremely low compared to the $500 and up costs just two years ago. The low investment and sudden popularity is driving many Internet citizens into the HomeCam market. The common justification for starting a HomeCam given to friends and family is, "This is so you can see me when I can't come and visit you." The true reason: "This is so I can be an Internet celebrity, seen by thousands of people throughout the world." The popularity is easy and instantaneous. How else could a computer guru in our little town of Charleston become a worldwide name? Well, most come looking for my wife, but that is the way of the HomeCam.
Although there are just as many men with HomeCams as women, it is the women who are worshiped. The Nose comments on the traffic through his index, "Sorry guys, but it's the cold hard truth. My server logs indicate that over 90 percent of the traffic to this site is to the ladies' pages." He continues by warning the soon to be WebCam owning women, "If you've got your website set up on a local ISP with a $19.95 account, it's very likely that the traffic your WebCam generates will be large enough that your ISP will ask you to move before you crash their system." It's no surprise that a bunch of women changing clothes and bathing live on the Internet brings in viewers by the thousands. But, not all HomeCams have nudity.
August (www.augustlive.com) and Question Girl (offline) both have monstrously popular web sites - and neither one has any nudity. It's true that they've been seen in their underwear as they lounge around the house, but they don't show anything that can't be seen on television. Question Girl clearly states, "If you're looking for porn, look elsewhere." August agrees, "I may be wearing very little from time to time. If that offends you, just go away." Both make it easy for the pornographic hunter to bypass their truly voyeuristic sites with advertisements to some of the most popular pornographic sites on the Internet. Some would think it odd that these non-pornographic sites blatantly advertise pornography. Question Girl explains, "The banners were put up to try to help cover the cost of the bandwidth because the Question salaries couldn't keep up. Since we won't make the site a pay site ever and we don't have the time/energy/desire to market products, banners seemed to be the most hassle free for both ourselves and the viewer. There are other banners out there, yes. But when cost versus payout and willingness to sponsor the site came into play, these were the ones that could keep the site alive." The banners do help a lot to support the rising cost of maintaining one of the most popular HomeCam sites. They pay the site owner 5 cents to 18 cents per click. With thousands of viewers a day, the earnings add up fast.
I quickly found the reason for advertising pornography sites instead of non-pornography sites. In an attempt to make my Internet service pay for itself, I started banner advertising. I joined all the non-pornographic programs I could find. After nearly five months, I hadn't received a single penny from any of them. I later started using the pornography advertising programs. Each month I receive a nice sized check. Without any work at all on my part I make more than enough to pay my $19.95 per month Internet bill.
It's hard to keep a balance between maintaining a small HomeCam and becoming an extremely popular Internet personality. Jamey Dee (www.rearwindow.com/jameydee) is dealing with the struggle right now. She recently received mail from her Internet provider, Simplenet, informing her that her service charge will increase by $200 a month because of the amount of traffic her HomeCam receives. She, like many other Cam operators, started off as a HomeCam watcher. "I started stumbling over lots of outdoor/scenery cams, pet cams, and even the ever appealing SpamCam, which sought to answer the burning question, 'Is Spam organic?' Then I stumbled on Michael Fischer's Spy Cam and Don-O-Cam and Don's Office Camera. Don's Cam really did influence me - mostly because on those miserable nights when I'd be working late, I'd peek in on Don's cam - and there he'd be, too!" After thinking about the hours and hours spent watching cams, Jamey took the big leap. "I ruminated upon these things and came to the conclusion: I'm at least as interesting as watching Spam rot under glass and slightly more attractive than a shoerack. Hence, the 'Endlessly Thrilling Office/Home Cam' was born." Initially only for friends, Jamey Dee's HomeCam grew in popularity until she was receiving 3000 visitors a day. That is where Simplenet had a problem. They complain that 5 percent of their customers use up 75 percent of their resources. Now Jamey and her friend Summer are losing their HomeCams unless they can bring in an extra $200 a month to pay off Simplenet. Jamey is frustrated and complains, "I want my HomeCam. I don't want to be a Ho'Cam!"
It is not uncommon for many HomeCams to turn to pay-per-view online sex to pay off the money-hungry Internet providers, but it changes the entire atmosphere of the HomeCam. JameyDee is a happy and humorous middle-aged Asian woman who loves to chat with friends in her free time. But if Simplenet has their way, she will become host to yet another pay-per-view strip show. It is easy to side against the Internet providers in this dilemma, but they are doing nothing more than normal busines s. Why not charge the small minority of HomeCam owners who are using up most of the service? It's a simple fact: the more popular a user's homepage is, the more it costs the Internet provider to host it. So, the Internet providers consistently raise the cost of service for HomeCam operators, if for nothing more than to see how much they will pay.
Charleston's local Internet Providers haven't dealt with this problem yet. As far as they can tell, none of their customers have HomeCams using up their resources, and there is no need for a HomeCam policy. My Internet provider, Concentric Network, hasn't made it clear how they would handle a popular HomeCam site either. As a guy, I don't worry about it much. It's the women that have trouble. Female cams are the popular ones because both men and women will pay to watch if there is sex. Both August and Question Girl refuse to become "pay sites." A pay site is one that you have to pay to watch. I know nobody that will admit to paying for SexCams, but then I know nobody that will admit to buying the Spice Girls album - and it sold millions of copies. Most SexCams are not HomeCams, but rather an office set up with many cubicles. Each cubicle has a bed and a WebCam. The women move from cam to cam and put on a sex show for the paying viewers. This has little to do with personal lives and more to do with simple online sex.
Handling the financial services is too difficult for a single person, so it is normally a business specializing in SexCams. I have heard many ask, "Why sex?" Simply, it's in demand. I have even had requests from viewers that I get naked online! I don't necessarily feel flattered by it (mainly because most of the fan mail I've received comes from Asian businessmen), and I doubt the women are flattered when an anonymous viewer sends the generic "Show me your..." message. Viewers want sex and are willing to pay for it. The Internet providers want money, regardless of how it is made. So, if the Cam doesn't focus on sex, it won't be popular enough to go to a pay-per-view format and the owner won't be able to pay the monthly bill. There are some independent pay sites that survive. While searching all of South Carolina for a HomeCam other than my own, I found only one, and it is run by woman called Coy. You can see Coy at her CoyCam (offline), and her site does contain nudity. "I'm an exhibitionist," she plainly admits. It is free to watch her HomeCam, but she charges for membership to her archives of past shows. For Coy, they are shows, unlike the non-performances of Jenni, August and QuestionGirl. She explains, "My Cam is impromptu. It gets switched on when I feel an 'urge'. So far, I haven't set it to take totally candid pictures like the JenniCam. When my camera is on, I am aware of it. Do I pose? Sure I do. Can I stop a picture that I don't like from broadcasting? Nope. It's live." She has proven that planned performances can be very popular. She has even worked toward making them interactive, like her cooking shows. "For some reason, 'Cooking with Coy' has been a hit," she says. "Some people like to watch me cook. I really cook a recipe, so this 'show' can take a couple of hours. I'll be continuing this feature replete with an advance recipe just in case you want to 'cook along'!" Another popular CoyCam feature is "Bottomless Chat Night." You can join Coy and other fans in an online chat with only one rule: Nobody can wear anything below the waist. Coy seems to have found the perfect balance. She has a pay and free site. She has normal life with many performances. She has simple chat, cooking and work shows, along with stripping shows. And it is all broadcast out of a little town in upstate South Carolina. Sex aside, HomeCams are about life, much in the same way that MTV's "Real World" gives viewers an omnipotent look into the personal lives of complete strangers.
This "openess" was taken to a new level this past June 16th when a woman known only as "Elizabeth" went live on the Internet as she entered a hospital in Orlando, Florida. She stayed live with streaming video and audio for the entire 5-hour labor and half-hour delivery of her son Sean. Though it was only a short stay in the online world, Elizabeth made a record as the first live birth on the Internet. Now, she and her son have disappeared into the anonymous real world again, but it shouldn't be surprising if baby Sean grows up and feels the urge to be seen by millions of fans again. (Does this remind anyone of a hit movie starring a former pet detective?)
The fans of HomeCams are just as dedicated as any celebrity fan. The advantage to being a fan of HomeCam celebrities is that you don't have to read the tabloids to learn what they are really like. All you have to do is watch. It's not surprising to find that most HomeCam operators are also HomeCam fans.
I was watching Ana long before I got my own Cam working. Since then, I have regularly watched August and QuestionGirl. Another fan turned operator is Mark (offline), a long-time Ana fan - and not only for the occasional nudity. "I was watching Ana before I knew she got naked," Mark says. "In fact, I started my archive before I had seen her getting naked. I just thought she was pretty entertaining. Of course, I don't mind the nakedness either." The sign of a true fan is the archive. Mark faithfully collects each image from Ana's HomeCam and then puts them in his own site, organized by day and time, so anyone can go back and revisit times they enjoyed or missed.
As mentioned, Mark moved into the HomeCam society himself, but for his own reasons. "I had the Cam and it seemed like fun, plus to be less self-conscious about my appearance I figured I'd let people see me." Like many, his own HomeCam increases his enjoyment of watching other HomeCams. He explains it as, "...feeling like you know the person on the other end. Some people like that. As long as the person in front of the cam is sufficiently likeable, I imagine they'll have at least some audience." It's true. Even I, an anonymous guy here in Charleston, have an audience. It may only be 30-40 people a day, but it's an audience. I feel connected to them, even though I don't know their names, faces, or hometowns. I'd rather be privately connected to them through my HomeCam than be privately isolated all alone.
I have found through this experience that Ana is completely correct - privacy is a state of mind.
Copyright ©1998-2019 C. Shaun Wagner. All rights reserved.