But tell these friends you're writing about personal webcams -- Web sites where people are living their lives in front of a camera hooked up to the Internet -- and it's extraordinary how many of them will admit that, yes, they've checked one or two of these sites out. Just out of curiosity, of course.
It's old news that there are now thousands of cameras attached to the Internet. Most are still simple, cheap devices that capture a regularly updated single image of a remote place -- a scenic view, a coffee pot down the hall, a tank of fish, the local traffic or surfing conditions. But more recently an entire sub-genre of these cameras has emerged -- personal cameras or "homecams," located in people's most intimate spaces, offering the viewer apparently unmediated insights into their owners' ordinary waking (and sleeping) lives.
Some of these camera sites are immensely boring, and some are really just out to make a buck. Some aspire to performance art without ever really achieving it, and others are just very sad to visit. What they all share is a fidelity to the moment: Every two minutes or so you get a new picture of the owner not just at work or lounging around, but dressing and undressing, snoozing and showering, eating and talking, flirting and, yes, fucking.
Not surprisingly, it's the promise (however remote) of the more fleshly of these activities that's made some of these sites the sort your friends bookmark surreptitiously -- and won them phenomenal popularity. Earlier last year, the page presenting pictures from the life of a 21-year-old then-college-student named Jennifer Ringley was getting, by her own count, over 100 million hits a week.
Ringley says that people who go to her Jennicam site looking for sex, or even flesh, will soon get bored: Faced with repeated images of her sitting fully dressed at her computer, visitors either "get it or get out." And there are certainly thousands of other places on the Internet that will freely and instantly offer you images far more explicit than any you might eventually see snapped by her camera.
So how then to explain the enormous popularity of sites like hers? And given that most people on most cameras are simply sitting, fully clothed, in front of a computer monitor all day, why does a disreputable air persist around them? Perhaps our unease has less to do with prurience than with novelty: In their banality, these sites are offering us a new and unfamiliar aesthetic -- one that is, like all interesting art, visually fascinating, disconcertingly erotic and a provocative reflection of ourselves.
If you've only seen one personal webcam it's likely to have been the Jennicam. The widely acknowledged pioneer of living publicly on the Web, Ringley has been doing so now for over two years -- first via a camera in her college dorm room (until the volume of traffic got her thrown off the college network) and more recently via a camera in her Washington, D.C., apartment. She has stuck to her self-imposed rules: Never turn off the camera; carry on with whatever she's doing as if no one were watching. If that means being seen changing, or sleeping, or fooling around with a boyfriend on her bed, then so be it.
But while her site is the oldest and the most famous homecam, in the last six months an entire second generation of camera owners, many citing Ringley as their inspiration, has emerged.
It didn't take long for people to realize there was money to be made out of the popularity of sites like Ringley's. So part of the second wave has been a whole slew of pay sites ("Ho" sites to some) charging a fee for a regularly updated image of (almost without exception) a woman sitting at home, generally in front of a computer and minimally dressed. Some of these sites are clearly presenting professional sex workers masquerading as amateurs, or are fronts for conventional X-rated businesses. But many are apparently owned by women who have welcomed cameras into their lives as a convenient way of earning hard cash at home to help support a baby or to put them through college. There are also an intriguing number of sites run by husband-and-wife teams -- he runs the server and she sits at the computer and smiles. All these sites need to deliver remarkably little to justify their fees. While some offer regular shows, many explicitly promise nothing at all -- not even to be in front of the camera for any length or at any particular time. Yet many have reached vast audiences with no marketing.
But visit the Homecam catalog Web site run by Ur-webcam fan The Nose (George Buce) and it becomes clear that these pay sites occupy just a small part of the personal webcam world. If it has its prostitutes, it also has its regular Joes and Janes, its couples, families and babies. Just like the real world, this one is populated by innocents as well as teases, by beauties and brutes, gossips and bores. Buce (the man who coined the term "homecam") currently lists nearly 200 homecams on his site -- and those are only what he calls the "primary sites of interest."
And an entire online culture has now grown up around the camera sites. Along with the catalogs there are numerous archives, discussion sites, even meta-sites that show you the latest live picture from the 20 or so most popular cameras. Many of the second generation of homecams are run by male fans of women's sites who, in the words of one, have felt moved "to take the next step" and offer the world images of themselves.
As diverse as the subjects of the cameras are the rationales their owners offer for presenting them to us on the Web. For Ringley it started as a "project" but has grown into a commitment that she can see lasting her lifetime. For musician and artist Ana Voog of Anacam, it's a fun, surreal experiment in (often naked) performance and play. But not all are as brave (or perhaps as foolhardy) as Jennifer or Ana.
For some -- the lonely or the vain -- the fact that just a smile can bring them mountains of e-mail is reason enough to do it. For Liz Dillard, who shares her camera with her husband and two kids, the camera is a fun way to show the in-laws back in Texas "how the family is doing." And for a lot of people the camera is really just an extension of the spirit of online chat. "It's a way of making myself accountable," says Chip of the San Francisco-based Chipcam. A veteran of online communities, Chip feels the camera authenticates his online persona. And like Chip, many cam owners stay determinedly clothed and terminal-bound, only turning their camera on when they feel like communicating with the outside world or when they are home. But the majority of homecam operators who offer justifications in their "about me" or FAQ pages confess to not knowing quite why they are doing it -- they just needed to try it.
For many it will be a transitory stage in self-development or self-exploration (webcams have a high burnout rate). Certainly, if you're a relatively young woman, leading your life publicly on the Internet can be an intoxicating, indeed overwhelming experience. With no publicity and doing little more than looking prettily wistful, a British woman who had an occasional camera on a friend's site that became known as Dreamycam was soon getting tens of thousands of hits and several hundred e-mails a day, many asking her to do much more than look wistful.
The costs, just in terms of bandwidth, can be huge: Ringley has had to go to a membership format because no-one would host such a popular site for free. Voog is now selling Anacam mugs and T-shirts. And Ringley has had a nasty run-in with hackers, who broke into her site and replaced her image with mutilated bodies. Whatever got these women started, to keep their cameras going requires considerable perseverance and ingenuity.
Homecam operators all have their own reasons for putting their lives online. But if you look at the substance of the chat about these sites, at which sites are most popular or at how they are cataloged by fans, it's clear that their appeal is built on the way they engage male desire. "How many breasts can you see before it gets old?" asks Ringley. As any online pornographer can tell you, that number has yet to be found. Ringley might find it hard to believe that men will wait for weeks for a glimpse of what they could see elsewhere with a mouse click, but apparently many will. The very fact that that glimpse is so rare seems only to heighten the triumph when they get one.
That personal webcams are beloved by Web voyeurs certainly helps explain their slightly disreputable image. But if the majority of self-styled "fans" of the cams were first drawn to them by a rather conventional quest for titillation, they've sometimes found their ideas about their own desires challenged in fascinating ways.
For one thing, where conventional pornography offers to satiate desire with manicured and manufactured bodies, the truly amateur webcams that do offer up fleshly images for the most part make no concessions to those conventions of female sexiness. These are women who sometimes look awful in the morning, don't hide their cellulite and only get made up the way they, not we, prefer. And a lot of them go even further. A model or actress at either end of the pornography-Hollywood continuum can reliably expect that most published images of her will be flattering to the point of making her unrecognizable to herself. But most webcam owners cede control of their image to the determinations of a cheap, unsophisticated camera set on an automatic two-minute refresh rate. If they are feeding a desire, then, it is a desire not for unreal models but for people who look like the rest of us.
Even if homecams encourage us to find "real" people attractive, it might seem that they are still essentially about predatory men getting their solitary kicks from peeping anonymously at women. Yet these women (and men) are being spied on with their knowledge and consent. There are plenty of voyeur sites that offer pictures of women who've been photographed unknowingly while bathing or sleeping, or when they were too drunk at a party to object (a Japanese specialty). But webcams are different. They instead suggest a deal between an exhibitionist and a voyeur -- even if it is one that neither seems to know quite how to frame.
In their discussion groups, webcam fans are constantly asking themselves why they are spending so much time at these sites. Their postings betray a knowledge of, and often affection for, the objects of their gaze that suggest feelings entirely different from the quick, anonymous transactions of conventional porn. The fact that some of the most involved fans have taken "the next step" and are now presenting themselves on the Web suggests, too, that whatever got them hooked on webcams, they have been affected and changed by them as well.
Indeed, watching to see if Questiongirl or August will ever get completely naked, or if Ana will finally bring a lover home to her pets and her small couch sets one up for a long wait; whatever satisfaction it results in is going to be very different from the instant visual gratification of porn. The wait forces the viewer into introspection and connection. And if the delay doesn't, the owner might. When he gets requests from his visitors to strip, "I try to get them into conversations about that, without actually doing it," says Chip of the Chipcam.
The images these sites offer are both banal and arousing, deeply ordinary and deeply disturbing. They mess with the ideas we have about our own desires -- about what we find attractive or interesting in people. They invite us to be intimates and keep us at a distance. No wonder we are fascinated but don't necessarily "get it" right away.
Walter Benjamin famously identified one of the archetypal figures of early modernism in the flâneur -- Baudelaire's detached observer, walking untraced through the teeming city, who knew, in Terry Eagleton's words, "the delights of possessing unpossessed and seeing unseen." Perhaps homecam fans are a new breed of flâneur, enabled by Internet technology to enter more intimate spaces and moments than their 19th century forebears.
Personal webcam content is most often tedious in the extreme -- it's no surprise that people seeking to make some easy money from the phenomenon have felt it necessary to spice it up with fiction. But what Jenni and Ana and August and Labman and Mystic Seven are doing by inviting us to gaze at them all day and every day is not about conventional desire or commercial entertainment. What makes them troubling and captivating is that, instead of giving us something we already know, they are pioneering both a new erotics and a new kind of performance -- one that could be called the art of the publicly lived private life.
Even the most intriguing of these sites is not very successful by the conventions of rewarding conversation, art-historical profundity or even "amateur" pornography. Their virtual-yet-real-time public recordings of private lives are compelling precisely when it's clear that these are not professional raconteurs, wits or strippers. They fascinate, and produce work that can at least make a claim to be considered as art, just because they manage to communicate their profound ordinariness to us.
Two clouds are hanging on the homecam horizon, threatening this innovative form. One is that celebrity might ruin the progressive charm of the most interesting of the homecam sites: the Anacams and the Jennicams. While people like Jenni and Ana are already celebrities and exist for most of us in a purely mediated, hyperreal space, they are the solitary surfer's own rather wonderfully disquieting discoveries. But now that they've come to the attention of a commercial media salaciously hungry for novelty, the owners of these cams risk being turned into what they at present are the very opposite of -- unremarkable and disposable celebrities manufactured and sold to us within the conventional product cycle of corporate media.
In addition, the Internet has offered some liberation from our mainstream culture's definitions of gender and beauty, and there's a danger these cameras might reverse that. With a camera you can dress up and role-play, but appearing on camera can also make it a lot harder to habitually "genderfuck" (change the gender of your online persona) or to escape the rules of attractiveness that favor the young, the thin and the rich.
But however the viewers and owners of homecams deal with these challenges, they are going to reward our attention. With cheaper cameras and widening bandwidth giving the Web ever more eyes, we all face a future of increasing visual interconnectedness. Not always consciously and not always successfully, the producers and the fans of personal online cameras are already inhabiting that world. They are out there ahead of us, working out how we might be able, and indeed be forced, to change how we approach friendship, art, entertainment and desire.