Watching our miserable lives on the Internet

If there's one television show that I find irritating, it's MTV's The Real World. In this episodic, fly-on-the-wall observation of the lives of five 20-somethings in a way-cool apartment in (I think) Venice, California, we get to see how trivial and inane other people's lives are.

Indeed, "other people's lives" is the subject of a whole gamut of programming that starts with The Real World and culminates in the life-and-death world of Emergency. This show is definitely an extreme -- we get to see an emergency trauma team work on people for everything from overdoses to heart attacks.

In short, our culture likes watching and listening to the details of other people's lives; the US is becoming a nation of voyeurs. Just consider that Jerry Springer now gets better ratings than Oprah Winfrey!

Of course, the online world has its equivalents. At the low end are the unfocused libidinous ramblings of the denizens of the "hot tub" and other lowlife channels on Internet Relay Chat. After that, there's the torrent of self-indulgent, puerile smut found on practically all Usenet newsgroups.

The obsession our culture seems to have with trivia, other people's lives, sleeze and smut is amazing, and computers and the Internet are perfect vehicles. Just open any consumer-oriented computer magazine, and you'll find advertisements for porno CD-ROMs with "wife-proof labels''!

One Internet site, run out of a garage in Los Angeles, offers what I shall call "live shows'' via teleconferencing and is reputed to have earned its owners $US275,000 last month.

While pornography is a pretty obvious consequence of cheap, anonymous connectivity, discovering that people are similarly fascinated by the life of a quite ordinary woman, and will watch her over the Internet, is quite surprising.

I am referring to Jennicam (www.jennicam.org), the Web site that has been observing the life of one Jennifer Kaye Ringley for some years. Jennicam displays a picture of Ringley's bedroom and living room once every three minutes (she does sometimes turn it off for shy visitors). But in general, Jennicam shows everything Ringley does, including many of the more intimate moments of her life. Originally, Ringley allowed anyone to observe, but now you have to pay a $US15 fee to help offset her connection costs. Considering her site gets a reputed 100 million hits per week, her server needs a fairly hefty pipe to handle the load. She claims that some 5,500 people have subscribed.

Ringley, a Web site designer living in Washington, D.C., has said many times that she isn't doing this for money, and certainly the $US82,500 revenue from subscriptions isn't going to make her rich.

What is really fascinating is the huge response the world, not just the 'Net, has had to Jennicam. From denunciations by TeleCommunications President Leo Hindery to interviews with the BBC and National Public Radio, and guest spots on network talk shows, everyone is either fascinated, enraged, entranced or obsessed by the life of a relatively average person.

It is not like Ringley is alone. There are scores of other personal "cams" on the Net providing the same kind of fly's-eye view. The Internet is taking us to the next level of voyeurism, and it's a game anyone can play.

We're evolving into a strange culture, and the Internet is bringing out our oddest drives and interests. Brother Theodore on Late Nite with David Letterman once commented: "You are born, you live your life in torment and humiliation and then you die. ... You need to watch television to distract yourself from your miserable destiny.'' To that we can now add watching the miserable destiny of others over the Internet.

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