"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 13 April 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Worm's-eye View



Two weeks ago in an apartment

building lobby in San

Francisco's Richmond District, a

frustrated urbanite installed a

hidden video camera that will

ultimately reveal which of his

fellow tenants has been

regularly pilfering his morning

newspaper over the past year.

Much to our disappointment, the

camera operator has decided not

to webcast this drama. While the

craven newspaper thief will no

doubt appreciate such discretion

in the wake of his or her

exposure, it's just this sort of

minimalist cliffhanger that

could transform the moribund

Web-cam genre into something

worth watching.


From the very start, of course,

complacency and creative

exhaustion have been the

defining characteristics of the

Net's webcammunity. For those

aesthetically unfulfilled souls,

who find penning a restroom

stall limerick or painting a Bob

Ross blandscape too daunting an

enterprise, the QuickCam Pro

beckons. "I saw somebody had

focused a camera on a coffee

maker somewhere. I thought, 'I

can probably do that,'" said one

D. W. Griffith of the genre. "I

just thought it would be neat to

have people be able to look at

my fish," explained another

convention-smashing trailblazer.



To be fair, every new medium

needs time to develop - could

anything as sublime as The Knife

Collectors Show exist without

decades of Edison-like

experimentation and masterly

refinement? Still, we can't

quite contain our

disillusionment about the

stagnant state of Web-cam

entertainment. It's been eight

years now since a group of lazy

caffeine slurpers pioneered the

genre - how much has it really

progressed in that time?

Certainly, a number of similarly

utilitarian pursuits have been

devised; distance parenting and

remote grieving are just a few

of the new pursuits that Web

cams make possible. But for

programming that falls more

squarely under the entertainment

rubric, viewers continue to have

very few choices. You can watch

scaly, tediously inert,

fancifully named reptiles. Or

you can watch scaly, alarmingly

ert, fancifully named



Which is perhaps why so few

people appear to be watching at

all. Even Jennifer Ringley,

whose fortuitous fusion of

reptilian inertia and


flauntrepreneurship has made

JenniCam the poster url of the

Web-cam genre, hasn't really

managed to attract a sizable

audience. While newspaper

reporters have apparently been

eager to haplessly misinterpret

whatever arbitrary numbers she

feeds them - the traffic her

site attracts has been variously

reported as getting "100 million

hits a week," "4 million people

a day," and "500,000 visits a

day" - she has yet to join the

likes of Matt Drudge, High

Society, and Barbie in the Media

Metrix 500. And when it comes to

paying customers, she's been

even less successful than

Microsoft's coy clickteaser.

While several articles have

stated that 5,500 loyal voyeurs

pay Ringley a US$15 annual

subscription fee, the amount of

money that even that tiny

discipleship would generate -

$82,500 - doesn't really

correspond with her frequent

declarations of financial




Will the Web-cam genre

ultimately come to resemble

contemporary poetry, wherein

practitioners outnumber readers?

While there's nothing shameful

about such a fate, it can't help

but seem like failure in the

wake of The Truman Show and

EDtv. Indeed, wasn't perpetual

auto-surveillance supposed to be

the next wave in mass

entertainment? It's true that

comparisons to The Truman Show and

EDtv are perhaps a bit premature

- even the most elaborate

Web-cam setups, like Eric

Ciprian's $200,000

home-panopticon, can't deliver

the pervasive, broadband

coverage that ostensibly made

Truman Burbank and Ed Pekurny so

compelling to their fans. And

it's also true that these movies

were mostly a $115 million hit

on a glass pipe packed with

fear, nostalgia, and crack. They

both reflect old media's anxiety

over the fact that so many

people are abandoning

traditional forms of

entertainment for the DIY

pleasures of chat rooms and Web

cams. And they both try to ease

their anxieties by assimilating

the enemy. Of course, this

assimilation occurs on their own

unbelievable terms. Following

the dictates of chat rooms and

Web cams, ordinary people are

the stars of the show, but

somehow Truman and Ed claim

audiences far larger than

Ciprian, Ringley, or even South

Park or Friends are able to

aggregate; they're Super

Bowl-sized audiences, composed

of every conceivable viewer -

Latino restaurant workers,

upper-middle-class sorority

girls, cosmopolitan gay couples,

and countless other delegates

from the Late Great American

Mass Audience.


Even more fantastic than this

post-modem idyll is the

Garboesque reticence these

movies ultimately ascribe to

their citizen-stars. At the end

of each cautionary tale, the

hero forsakes his privileged

place at the white-hot center of

a thousand Betacams; the

implicit message here is loud

and clear: "Listen people," the

old show-biz elites plead, "you

ordinary folks don't really want

your 15 minutes! Trust us, you

don't! So just put down those

Web cams, OK? And shut off those

modems! And, hell, give the

remote a rest too, would ya?

Just go back to being passive

viewers again, OK? Please?"



But as delusional as this notion

is, we can't help but sympathize

with it. After all, are any of

the Web-cam practitioners who've

emerged so far really worthy of the

15 minutes of attention Warhol

was willing to grant them, much

less the endless hours they've

claimed for themselves? At best,

they're screensavers - ambient

entertainment for a distracted

audience of restless websurfers.

And while their mundane

escapades might seem like

welcome, hip, even perversely

exotic alternatives in a world

where the hard-sell techniques

of show biz have purportedly

colonized every aspect of

contemporary life, such

sentiments are more pleasing in

theory than practice. If the

dreary, hit-or-miss quality of

actual experience is so

compelling, how come pretty much

every Web-cam site includes an

archive of its most interesting



Distillation has always been the

primary technique of reality

programming, and the degree to

which we've grown weary of even

action-packed "reality" is

apparent in the way that a show

like COPS, which provides a fair

amount of context with its

thrills, has evolved into

World's Scariest Police Chases,

which is essentially the

televisual analogue to

JenniCam's archived glamour

shots. Lately, however, even the

extremely selective editing of

such shows no longer appears to

be enough to sustain the reality

genre. Like the meddling

producer played by Ellen

DeGeneres in EDtv, the producers

of UPN's RedHanded impose plots

on the "real people" who

unwittingly serve as the show's

characters. In the tradition of

Candid Camera, RedHanded stages

elaborate practical jokes that

it records on tape; the

difference is that RedHanded

incorporates its victims' own

bad habits into its plot lines,

giving its pranks the moral

dimension and narrative

inevitability of good theater.

While the show has been fairly

uneven so far, in its best

moments, it stands as TV's

closest approximation to

Seinfeld. In one recent

scenario, for example, an

inveterate party crasher weasels

his way into a fashion show by

passing himself off as someone

on the guest list. But

RedHanded's producers have

rigged it so that the identity

he assumes is that of a

controversial designer - first

he's feted with complimentary

champagne, and then he's berated

by a horde of angry out-of-work

actors posing as angry, anti-fur

activists. In a span of about

five minutes, the party crasher

goes from smug accomplishment to

shrinking contrition - it's like

the triumphant return of George




While Web-cam auteurs obviously

don't have RedHanded's budget,

they do have ready access to the

most crucial ingredient for good

drama: bad behavior. Indeed,

there must be thousands of

apartment buildings out there

where neighbors are stealing one

another's newspapers - whichever

Web-cam auteur capitalizes on

this situation first will

definitely have our attention.

And if such an approach seems a

little too devious, no problem -

RedHanded is simply one model to

follow. The main thing, however

it's accomplished, is simply to

infuse the Web-cam genre with

some artifice and contrivance,

to create narratives that play

out more dramatically than "Hey,

here I am at my computer again

answering my email." For

example, couldn't Nerdman solve

crimes or something? And if we

have to watch an iguana for

hours on end, why not make it a

talking iguana? After all,

reality is OK - but as so many

bystanders who have witnessed or

experienced shootings, rescues,

and other newsworthy real-life

events have confirmed, we like

it best when "it was just like a


courtesy of St. Huck


[Purchase the Suck Book here]