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Must-See PC

Never mind cybersex; the Web gets seriously intimate with Webcams, those teeny computer eyeballs that strip away all pretense and seduce with artlessness.

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I am watching Jennifer Ringley take a bath, but she won't have lunch with me.

She may not have made a distinction between my lunch invitation -- which I've proffered as a columnist -- and the invitations she undoubtedly gets from the vast number of viewers who regularly look in on her life at www.jennicam.org and feel familiar enough to suggest a meeting.

Or, possibly, she understands that there are platform incompatibilities between new media and old media. Lately, she's done the talk-show circuit and might not be too happy about how that's turned out. On these talk shows -- Letterman, Oprah, Jenny Jones -- she's supposed to be a fifteen-minutes-of-fame oddity: the girl who broadcasts her life, from its most banal to its most intimate aspects, over the Internet. Her true oddness, however, is her obvious lack of oddness and affect. She is earnest, flat, artless (or alternatively, big, lumpy, dorky). She has no media personality. She is the reason those of us who are not on television are not on television -- on television, we would look like Jenni.

Which is sort of the point: artlessness, everydayness, nothing-specialness works on the Web, where you can find Jenni 24 hours a day (24-7, in Web talk). Indeed, we all might be good on the Web. "There are 5.5 million Webcams out there," according to Mitch Ratcliffe, CEO of VidWatch.Com. (These are cameras that perch on top of your computer monitor like an eyeball, cost as little as $69, and are used mostly to wave to Grandma or to soup up your cybersex.) He projects 12.5 million to 15 million by 2001.

I've tried explaining to the ordinary media-sophisticated people I know (who are, curiously, among the least Internet-literate people you'll find) the notion of a camera focused on someone nonstop. Mostly these savvy people ridicule the concept or overanalyze it. Jenni -- along with other sites like anacam.com, amandacam.com, johncamlive.com, gabgab.com, thewife.com -- is seen as quasi-pornographic, stupid, boring, or, more generously, as a type of avant-garde programming, or conceptual art, or Andy Warhol movie, or Truman Show thing (that is, a mock, an exaggeration, a high concept).

There are exceptions. A literary dowager I know was immediately enthusiastic: "Oh, I would love that. For years, I've been dying to know about the man next door. If only, I've thought, I just had a little hole in the wall. Maybe I should order the Internet."

My friend Ben Greenman, the executive editor of Yahoo! Internet Life, one of the few publications to be writing regularly about Webcams, says, just half facetiously, that Webcams are boring only in the way that reading is boring. (Although he does see the possibility of Webcams focused on people watching Webcams as potentially tedious.) To be able, at will, to look into someone else's life is, he says, an extraordinary media, not to mention literary, development. Webcams, he observes, keep you company like a talk show keeps you company, but it's company of a much higher order: It's truer, steadier, more intimate. You really are in someone's living room.

The form (let's call it a form) -- a bird's-eye view of reality -- began with a camera on a coffeepot at Cambridge University circa 1991. This was a famous novelty early in the Internet era. (There are now countless Webcams broadcasting slice-of-life scenes: from intersections where traffic accidents are likely to occur to daily life on Bourbon Street.) Jenni began broadcasting her life from her dorm room at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania in 1996. After graduation, Jenni moved to Washington, D.C., where she kept her virtual window open all day, allowing people to peer in and watch her sleep, eat, work, bathe, dress, undress, and (occasionally) have sex, becoming one of the Internet's most popular spectacles. Now she has a Webcast chat show, too, but that is not as compelling as her actual life.

Her actual life is minimalist. Zen. Noh. Perhaps everyone's life would take on such peacefulness and elegance if you saw it only as a series of movements, gestures, and static states (sleeping, working, doing nothing). You project onto her. I see her, for instance, as probably very much like Monica -- a young woman, intelligent in a contemporary, urban, consumer sort of way, inside her Washington, D.C., apartment all day (like Monica, Jenni has been oddly singled out). I know people who keep Jenni in the corner of their screens as they work -- she's a background presence, like radio. The fact that she keeps going, keeps showing up, keeps doing whatever inconsequential things she does, is not only reassuring but instructive -- this is how people deal with time, this is how people fill their days. They don't overdramatize. Jennicam is far from avant-garde or conceptual stuff. It's a narrative based on conventional character. The values, too, are pretty conventional: Jenni sits diligently in front of her computer; Jenni has a boyfriend who stays over a few nights a week; Jenni's apartment has become better furnished as she's gotten more successful; Jenni faithfully makes her bed every morning.

Jenni now has legions of imitators -- hundreds, at this point. New Webcam personalities debut every day. This is, quite likely, the direction of personal Websites: We'll all go visual to some degree. Still, I tend to think of the form as belonging to Jenni -- she's created it and defined it. And now, of course, others are commercializing it.

In Tampa, Florida, for instance, there's a kind of Fox version (making Jenni sort of PBS) of a Webcam site. It's not, like Jennicam, a type of personal essay but more of a produced affair. Of course, the production values of a Webcam still render pictures only slightly clearer than a sonogram.

The Florida site has been assembled by the legendary 25-year-old Web impresario Seth Warshavsky. The Seattle-based (via Queens) Warshavsky is responsible for the distribution on the Web not only of the Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson homemade sex tape and nude pictures of radio therapist Dr. Laura Schlessinger but of onlinesurgery.com, where you might have seen liposuction or breast-implant procedures. The focus of his company -- which, he says, did $50 million last year, with $15 million in net profits, which would make it the most profitable company in the Internet industry -- is to prepare for the large-scale deployment of broadband transmission that will enable the Internet to efficiently deliver moving pictures.

In Tampa, Warshavsky has assembled a house shared by six college girls and a (slightly older) den mother. There are 31 cameras that broadcast continuously from within the house, from the pool, the common rooms, the bedrooms, and the bathrooms. The cameras, transmitting at three or four frames per second, offer almost silent-film-quality motion. It is just possible to get a sense of character and of the generally casual rhythms of the house. While there is an air of salaciousness in the packaging of the site -- it is, after all, called Voyeurdorm -- in practice it is quite an innocent affair. There are flashes of dressing and undressing and showering and flirting with the camera (Jenni, in contrast, never acknowledges the camera), but there is also a lot of sitting-around and doing various roommate-type chores.

"We give the participants room and board and a small weekly allowance, and for that, all they have to do is agree to give up their privacy," explains Bruce Hamill, the local Tampa television entrepreneur who first brought the concept to Warshavsky, and who supervises the day-to-day operation. "It's like you're a roommate. You're just living here. The cameras are no big deal. It's like cameras in a store," says Alex, a 19-year-old former paralegal, now in her first year of college, who came to live in the house last fall.

The goal, Hamill says, is to do a kind of "unedited" version of MTV's Real World, but the general effect can seem closer -- certainly with the arrival of various male interlopers at the house -- to Three's Company.

I think that's part of what's going on: The sitcom form -- domestic characters in a contained setting, with a minor story line -- is being radically transmogrified. The producer's job is not to create an artful imitation of domestic life but to actually create that life: 24-7.

Creating content, creating a true hit, the equivalent, say, of I Love Lucy, has turned out to be the most difficult part of turning the Internet into a media business. Indeed, the media model -- large numbers of people looking at the same thing, having a shared experience, and being susceptible to a related commercial message -- has to date been something of a dud online. The Internet now comprises large numbers of users, on almost as many different pages, who are having radically diverse experiences and who are therefore less responsive to conventional advertising than sitcom or even drive-time-radio audiences. Of course, the Internet, in its maturation process (even moving at the speed of the Internet), may still be in a pre-Lucy stage; Jennicam may actually be the Internet's equivalent of The Goldbergs -- that first primitive family-life sitcom. Also, it's still a business run largely by technology people, and what do they know about entertainment?

But Warshavsky is obviously right that we are within months (whether nine, or twelve, or eighteen) of the coming tsunami (as they say in the technology business) of broadband-to-the-Internet. Last week, Victoria's Secret attracted the largest audience ever assembled on the Internet by broadcasting a lingerie fashion show. The New York Times, in its first review of an Internet broadcast, suggested with some resignation that given the 2 million people who showed up for this fashion show, the Internet might, in a few years, with appropriate advances, replace television.

But that's an issue, really, about monitors. I'll bet the convergence between digital and analog and between television and PC monitor is incidental to the greater coming-together of life outside and life inside the box.

It's 9:50 a.m. Jenni is sitting up in bed, her comforter pulled around her, her blonde hair in tangles. You can see it (and relate to it): the pain of consciousness. And you just know what's going to happen: She falls back down on her bed. She is wearing, I note, a Victoria's Secret pajama set. Obviously, there are marketing opportunities here.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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