The Truman Show has it all wrong. There are dozens of people already living their lives — the boring and the kinky parts — in front of huge cult followings, but the catch is that they’re in on the secret. The webcam phenomenon, in which average Joes and Janes broadcast their everyday actions on the Net, didn’t inspire the Jim Carrey film but rather has zoomed into mainstream consciousness on its jet stream. If The Truman Show asks ”Who wants the world watching them?” the webcam nation says ”Who doesn’t?”
The best introduction to this new online Babel is EarthCam’s list of entertainment/personal webcams at http://www.earthcam.com. But to understand the oddball lure of the genre, travel to two of the most popular sites. Often considered the home-webcam pioneer, JenniCAM (www.jenni cam.org) was started in 1996 by Web designer Jennifer Ringley, then 19, who connected a camera to a computer in her dorm room at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Jenni’s life, now in Washington, D.C., is presented via new stills that appear every 20 minutes (or every two minutes if you pay a $15 annual fee). ”When you turn on the TV, you see people like Uma Thurman who have perfect bodies and perfect lives,” says Ringley. ”But when you come to my site, you see someone who’s living a real life. And yet it’s just as interesting.” Indeed, though not much happens (Jenni reads, Jenni sleeps, Jenni has a friend over), the effect is voyeuristically hypnotic. Truman Show director Peter Weir reportedly became so hooked on JenniCAM while editing the film that he sent Jenni anonymous E-mails. The site, which also includes a Real World-esque streaming-video component called JenniSHOW, amasses more than 500,000 hits a day.
Men are also getting into this exhibitionist act — in particular, one man who likes to sleep naked. With the free site Sean Patrick Live! (www. seanpatricklive.com) a 26-year-old Washington, D.C., data-systems designer named Sean Patrick Williams loses points for his boringly spartan apartment but gains them by including a new image at the gratifying interval of 30 seconds. SPL! also features a dating service, various poems and essays, and, most interestingly, a bulletin board where viewers (as many as 10,000 a day) can post their often frightening reactions and feelings. ”There are people who say they genuinely love [me]. It’s somewhat disturbing,” says Williams. ”The purpose is not for them to create a personal relationship with me. The purpose is for them to see me and go out and create a personal relationship with someone else.”
Williams admits there have been times where, like Truman, he has considered trying to escape his fishbowl existence. But what keeps public living manageable is simple control — the very aspect that makes the Internet profoundly unlike any other medium. In the end, the difference between Truman Burbank and Sean Patrick Williams is that the latter has his finger on the ”off” switch. JenniCAM: B+ Sean Patrick Live!: B+ >>Hotlink to The Web Guide at http://www.ew.com<<