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* CYBERTAINMENT

For Those Who Like to Watch, Home Webcam Provides Picture of Private Lives

January 08, 1998|MARK GLASER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People have always feared that Big Brother will peek in our bedrooms with surveillance cameras. It ends up that we don't need Big Brother. Dozens of people are setting up Webcams that snap live pictures 24 hours a day, letting anyone with an Internet connection and a browser into their home.

Though the Webcam concept started years ago, with cameras trained on university labs and coffee machines, the home Webcam revolution began with JenniCam. More than two years ago, Jennifer Ringley added a live camera feed to her dormitory room at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. She thought it would be fun for a few friends to see what she was up to. Soon, she was inundated with visitors from around the world and logged 500,000 hits a day.

Ringley graduated last summer and moved to Washington, D.C., where she (surprise!) designs Web sites. The JenniCam lives on (www.boudoir.org), but she now charges $15 per year for members to get the picture refreshed every two minutes vs. every 20 minutes for non-paying guests. She's branched into streaming video, with the "JenniShow," turning her site into a home photo album on steroids.

So what's the big deal? I suspect many voyeuristic men are lurking, waiting for Ringley to undress for bed. There is occasional nudity, but mainly it's real life, which means endless phone calls, sessions at the computer and plodding hours when Jenni is asleep. Jenni explains the nudity like this: "This site is not pornography. Yes, it contains nudity from time to time. Real life contains nudity."

That's been the refrain for all the sites that have popped up since Jenni became a "ceWebrity." There's a wide variety of home Webcams, with male and female protagonists, performance art or artless. Like the Web itself, some are clean and some are dirty.

One of the more interesting sites is AnaCam (www.anacam.com), run by musician Ana Voog, who has an album coming out on Radioactive Records. Though her appearances aren't totally staged, there's a performance art feel, with interesting backdrops and computer-generated art. She includes personal journals and, though the site is free, she has a selection of T-shirts, mugs and music for sale at the online "AnaMart."

Many homespun cams have been inundated with so many visitors they've crashed the servers and forced service providers to stop hosting them. Many now have membership fees to help pay for hosting. Some that may never have such fees are harmless sites like AsylumCam (www.iland.net/~ldarrah), which showcases a family of six; or the Gromit Cam (tvl.-psy.ohio-state.edu/~flip/BobCam.html), set up so the owner could keep an eye on his dogs, and which is best viewed with 3-D glasses.

After a couple of days looking at FootCam, PubCam, HousewifeCam and BratCam, I wasn't sure whether the home-cam revolution is one small step for exhibitionism or one giant leap for voyeurism. It sure made my eyes ache.

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Mark Glaser is a San Francisco-based writer and critic. You can reach him at glaze@sprintmail.com.

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