Real-life “Truman Show”

Six students offer advertisers a chance to sponsor their daily lives -- online, unedited, 24 hours a day.

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In February, six Oberlin College students bought a Canon digital video camera, four Pentium III servers and a fractional T1 line and transformed their lives into the first-ever 24/7 streaming audio and video show. Now they’re looking for sponsors.

The students are hoping to hit pay dirt by becoming the Web’s answer to “The Truman Show.” After all, if Tiger Woods gets paid to wear a Nike cap, why shouldn’t the girl studying economics on the couch?

“I realized that the time would come when people would become famous not because they were born into it or they worked into it, but because of nothing other than the fact that they have a camera on them,” says Erik Vidal, the 22-year old student (and nephew of Gore Vidal) who came up with the idea and funds for href="http://www.hereandnow.net">HereandNow.

The idea has certainly been explored by others. But, while sites like JenniCam offer periodic snapshots, HereandNow touts itself as the first to provide a 24-hour, live, unedited look into ordinary people’s lives.

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It’s not clear that advertisers have developed an appreciation for sponsoring such subtle celebrity, however. So far, the site boasts an ad for the Sync, which describes its offerings as “video for the Net Generation” — but no big corporate sponsors.

Log in to watch and there might be a party, one of the housemates watching television or nothing at all.

“This is real life. We’re not here to entertain people,” says Vidal, who — believe it or not — says he’s not interested in emulating MTV’s “The Real World.” And apparently there is an audience for this: Vidal claims an average of 1,000 people are tuned into HereandNow at any given time.

Perhaps predictably, the female roommates get the most attention. “I get people who are obsessed, absolutely in love with me,” said Lisa Batey, a 20-year old econ major. Some aren’t so kind. In response to a “win a date with Lisa” contest, Batey was barraged with hundreds of e-mail messages — not from suitors, but from women who accused her of perpetuating shallow values in relationships. “I guess it got interpreted wrong,” sighed Batey. “I just thought it would be fun to actually meet some of the people who are watching us. I guess I’m not very celebrity-minded.”

The HereandNow participants all seem to be learning a few real-world lessons from the project. Even as Vidal explains that the site’s “traffic could justify advertising, and we’ll need some kind of sponsorship to keep paying for the bandwidth,” he admits that his project may not find the funding it’s after. “This idea of uncensored life, where at any time anybody could do anything, that’s proving to be an extremely racy idea for conservative American companies … I tell you, my view of quite a few things has been darkened considerably by this project.”

Joe Ashbrook Nickell is a freelance writer in Missoula, Mont.

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