Look at Me

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 March 2001

Do reality TV and webcams indicate the future of media? Shows like Survivor, its countless clones, and the thousands of voyeuristic web sites springing up online all point to an alarming trend: we have become more interested in watching real people than crafted entertainments like television drama and movies.

Given the quality of fictional drama these days, that’s no small wonder. Scripts for television shows are conceived and written by committee, usually in a week or less. Their stories are ripped from the headlines and translated into a three-act structure with little or no regard for their thematic power or contribution to cultural conversation. In a sense, they are just acted-out (and usually watered-down) versions of something happening in real life somewhere, anyway.

In possession of remote controls, camcorders, and other interactive devices, modern audiences are less likely to submit to the hackneyed and conventional plot structures of the commercial media machine. We channel surf the dial in search of anything authentic - even if it’s as mundane as the security camera at convenience store.

Sure, Homer, Shakespeare, and Chekhov offered us windows into the human soul with dramas as authentic, or more so, than our experience of life itself. But these playwrights spent their lives honing their crafts. As the word “playwright” suggests, their works were wrought, not just written. Authentic, compelling drama cannot be cooked up overnight – however much media conglomerates may require more fodder for their cable TV schedules.

As a result, a camcorder sitting in an office (or, better, a college dormitory) now seems to have more of a chance of catching an authentic human interchange than three Panavisions on a soundstage. And we, the viewing public, appear to have gleefully adapted to our new role as media voyeurs. We live to watch.

Or do we?

My friend, new media artist and entrepreneur Josh Harris, has been living in public for the past hundred days. The site he’s created, WeLiveinPublic.com, is an experiment in internet exhibitionism. He’s fitted his and girlfriend’s loft with 32 cameras and motion sensors that follow the couple as they engage in everything as mundane as reading the paper and as exciting as, well, you get the idea. 40,000 people have registered to watch the couple, and 5000 of them spend at least several hours a week on the site.

This foray into exhibitionism is really just the premiere of a new web concept. Harris will be working with another company to sell webcams with motion sensors, as well as internet access, to anyone else who might want to broadcast their own lives onto the web. So far, several thousand have signed up.

So, within a few months, there will be tens of thousands of people broadcasting every intimate detail of their lives to the world. Taking their cue from MTV’s show Real World, these amateur exhibitionists will most likely compete for our attention by engaging in the most outrageous acts they dare to.

While big media companies will no doubt hope to capitalize on this trend by offering to scan the net for the most engaging stream of home media (based on our personal profiles and collaborative filtering), I have a sneaking suspicion that such strategies will miss the underlying passion driving the webcam trend.

It’s not about watching, it’s about showing.

As Harris readily admitted to me, “it’s sexy to be watched.” Of course it is. It means someone cares enough to pay attention to you. It turns your every action into a work of art. But there’s a difference between this quest for immortality and the work of poets past. An artist used to earn his place in our collective memory with his craft. A web exhibitionist earns attention by doing something in front of people that most people would normally do in private. It’s a willingness to reveal, not an ability to conceive or create.

Is this art? For Harris, it certainly is. He’s inventing the form. For the countless exhibitionists who follow in his footsteps, I’m not so sure. My guess is that a webcam-based entertainment network will simply accelerate the downward spiral of sensationalism we’ve been witnessing on our TV’s for the past couple of decades.

Maybe it will help us reach a nadir sooner, though. With proliferation comes ubiquity. We’ll get our fill of voyeurism and look for something more dimensional. Intentional art. And maybe a new wave of talented people from around the world will rise to create novel forms of expression, particularly suited for the webcam.

I’m glad the internet is about to be used, once again, for expression instead of passive consumption. But, for now anyway, I think I’ll just watch.