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THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING.
As more and more cameras are connected to the net, the web is growing eyes.
But is everyone ready for a close-up?
Webcams have been around for a few yeas now, transmitting round the-clock images of famous buildings, the surf conditions up and down the Pacific coastline, heavy traffic, street scenes and fish tanks. Since the first one went live sometime in the early '90s, Webcams have been proliferating steadily - though no one knows for sure how many are out there. An Internet search for the phrase "live Webcam" showed 9,28 Web pages. But there were many links to personal Webcam page where people are connecting cameras to the Internet and, privacy be damned, letting the world watch.
And the world is tuning in. Observers of the Webcam phenomenon say it's the logical next step for a society hooked on reality based television shows like "Cops" and MTV's popular "Real World" series. People are already turning cameras on themselves the Internet allows them to effectively broadcast those images, cheaply and continuously. Why watch other people's lives when other people could be watching yours?
Unfortunately, as entertainment, watching someone's life is even more boring than it sounds. Webcams tend to catch people in their most routine moments: sitting at a desk in front of their computer, staring at their monitors or typing. And yet, for a growing number of the voyeuristically inclined, these cyber transmissions have a strange appeal. Brian Cury, who runs a large Web-based directory of Webcam sites atwww.earthcam.com, says, "You develop a relationship with that person and you start to care about them."
There is, for example, the Webcam Dave Williams set up for his daughter, Danielle. The Williamses' Web site featured a window where you could watch a live snapshot of the baby that was updated once an hour, throughout the day and night, by a small $ 150 video-camera hanging above her crib. At the time Williams thought it would be a neat way for friends and family to watch Dani as she grew up. Then the fan e-mail started coming. From strangers in France. And Japan. And from a class of second grade somewhere in a small town .
Most of these people simply stumbled on the site in the course of regular Web surfing. Traffic to the DaniCam site grew from a few hits a month to 1,000 a day. At first Dave and his wife, Sheryl, were amused by the attention. The true horror of what they had done didn't hit them until they saw "The Truman Show," the 1998 movie in which a man unknowingly lives his life in front of cameras and a worldwide audience of prime-time viewers. "We're sitting there watching the movie and Sheryl turns to me and says, 'You're disconnecting the Dani Cam'." That night, the DaniCam went dark "To this day," says Williams, "people send e-mail saying, 'We miss Dani'."
Those Dani-addicts could migrate to the Marrero family camera, which is Webcasting images of Samantha, 2 y.o., and her brothel Matthew, who's a year old, live from their shared bedroom in Newark, N.J. or to Web Dorm.com, where you can watch real-life college students eat, sleep and study in their natural habitat 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Ryan Scott, a senior at Southen Methodist University, has kept his Webcam going for two years and uses it to socialize with friends and family, and meet new people. Cody Ward, a 20-year-old at the University of Florida, starting Web-camming a year ago out of curiosity but says he forgets the camera's even there anymore. "It's whatever. It's on."
Nobody knows this strange new world better than the female star of the Webcam that started it all in 1996 - the JenniCam at www.jennicam.org (be careful; porn lives right next door at www.jenny cam.org). Jennifer Ringley, now 23, is still there, living her life. The site started as a project for a computer class that Bingley took as a junior in college. She had seen a Webcam called The Amazing Fish Cam (pointed at an aquarium in the offices of Netscape, the browser-software company) and thought to herself, "Why not?" Three years later, the site gets 4.5 million hits a day and costs upwards of $15,000 a month to maintain. To help the financials break even, she charges $15 a year for a "subscription.
There probably won't be too many more such Jennis in our lifetime. But Webcams are sure to be a feature of tomorrow's technology landscape. People are increasingly discovering practical uses for them, such as monitoring a beach house during winter months or peeking in on kids through Webcammed day-care centers. In the future Webcams might allow you to check out the scene inside a nightclub before you stand in line, or help you get out of traffic using highway Webcams that can beam gridlock conditions to your moving car. These sorts of applications may well prove indispensable - and, in the process, make Webcam-addicts of us all.
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