Would you let a camera film every intimate detail of your life - every day? Across the UK thousands of people are doing just that on the Internet. And viewing figures are rising
It's 9pm. Jennifer is sitting in her living room in Washington DC. She's watching television. She's been sitting there for an hour. Occasionally she shifts position slightly, tucking her legs under, stretching out. Maybe someone will call later on, perhaps her boyfriend, if you stick around. Three thousand miles away in London it is 2am. Rob is lying in bed, sleeping. It's dark but you can just see his head sticking out of the duvet. Now and then he turns over. In another seven hours he'll probably get up, if you can wait that long ...

One year after it found a mass audience in America, webcam TV is hitting Britain, and people are switching off the television and turning on the computer to log on to complete strangers' lives, filmed in real time in intimate, often mundane detail.

Webcams are tiny cameras, the size of golfballs, which you plug into the back of your computer. Then, if you have an Internet connection, you can beam the images captured on your camera to the whole world. The cameras and software now cost less than pounds 100, and are soaring in popularity. At the moment the cameras only take snapshots, every 10, 30 or 60 seconds, so what you see when you log on to an Internet webcam site is a picture which jumpily updates, rather like closed-circuit television. But already more sophisticated technology is becoming available, with live "streaming" images and sound. "Personal webcams" are the major growth area (see box, page 42), and in America, where the medium is well established, certain sites enjoy enormous followings, with hundreds of thousands of viewers tuning in every day like they would to a soap opera, catching up on the lives of people they feel they know intimately.

In Britain the development of personal webcams is both similar to what happened in the States, and radically different. At the moment most sites are amateur and experimental, and the "cammers" are often computer hobbyists trying out the latest gadget. Typically most sites are run by men, reflecting men's massively greater use of the Internet. But the most popular sites are the small number run by women, since most Internet surfers seem to be men in search of vicarious sexual thrills. This disparity between supply and demand is also leading to a phenomenon well established in the States, the commercial webcam sites which purport to show the real lives of women but which are essentially credit-card operated peepshows. Babe TV, a British pay webcam site, claims to offer an insight into the "intimate" life of 25-year-old Kelly, who lives in a flat in Knightsbridge and works in publishing. Kelly's hobbies are "shopping, more shopping, clubbing, my career and showing off!" The site is said to be getting 500,000 visitors, or "hits", a day.

The radical difference between Britain and America, however, is that Americans have the luxury of free local calls. This means that they don't pay to be on the Internet, which is essentially like being on the phone with pictures. Because of the free calls, in America many webcam sites are "24-7", that is, the cameras stay on all the time. In Britain, with the occasional exception, this would simply be too expensive, without turning into a pay site, and the joy of British webcams at the moment is that they are largely free, largely amateur, and provide a fascinating and intriguing snapshot of a developing medium.

Twenty-five-year-old Colin Surrey has been mad on computers since he was a teenager. His first was a Sinclair Spectrum. After going to college in Sheffield, where he studied information technology, he returned to the family home, a large semi near Europe's newest and biggest out-of- town shopping centre, Trafford Park in Lancashire. He now works as a communications analyst. On the day I visit him the house is overflowing with relatives there to celebrate his sister's combined 21st birthday and engagement party. Half of the front bay window is taken up with a poster for the Church of England's new Alpha advertising campaign - Colin's mother is a lay preacher and training to be a priest. We huddle in a box bedroom where Colin keeps his home computer. He is wary of being labelled as a sad, single computer geek, yet his enthusiasm for computers is almost palpable.

He first got on to the Internet in 1994 when he was at college. He admits to being a "bit of an Internet addict". Before he got on to the webcam, he had already set up his own "page" or site, known as Wookie's Lair, in which he indulged his passion for Manchester City and science fiction, providing information, downloadable samples of TV programmes and City goals, and links to related sites. Wookie is his online identity. "The name Wookie came from Star Wars. Chewbacca was a Wookie. In the early days of the Internet I used to go into chatrooms and an integral part of it is having a user name, and I used to sign myself in as The Wookie and now people all across the globe know me as that." Chatrooms are exactly what the term suggests, virtual rooms in which people chat, except they don't speak, they use their keyboard and have a whole shorthand vocabulary to speed things up. Some, but not all, chatrooms, are used as a way of meeting potential partners.

The Wookie Cam was a development of his using chatrooms. Instead of just tapping away blind at a keyboard, he could direct people to his cam so that they could see what he looked like. Although he says it started off as "a bit of a joke", he now has one camera at home and another at work, so that he can be observed throughout his waking day. "On a good day I'll probably take 200 hits, on a bad day 60 or 70," he says. "I don't know if it's because people aren't interested or it's just a bad day. The girl sites get 20,000 hits a day. Male cams are not half as popular. The average Internet user is a red-blooded male and he's happier searching for women taking their clothes off rather than looking at someone like me staring at a monitor."

Although not an active churchgoer himself, he is a Christian and is keen to distance himself from this sleazier end of the Internet. He would certainly never appear naked, or semi-naked on camera. However, it is also obvious there is a certain exhibitionist thrill. "I do get messages saying, let's see more of you - it tends to be women in their thirties. The majority of calls are from blokes, asking me about the technology, but if I please some housewives into the bargain then that's fine. I wouldn't regard myself as an exhibitionist, but there is a kind of buzz once you've been on camera and you know there are people out there and they are interested in you. When someone sends you a message, you think, great, there are people who like you."

Chris James runs Britain's most popular male cam, CJ-UK. Chris is 37 and lives in a leafy suburb of Nottingham with his boyfriend, Ady. He works in support services for a large European retail group.

He believes chatting without seeing someone gives you a much better insight into their characters. He met his previous boyfriend, Brian, a PhD student in clinical psychology at Florida University, in an Internet chatroom.

"You don't judge them based on how they look," he says. "I didn't know what Brian looked like for six or seven weeks, but I got to know the real person through what he wrote, and then we spoke on the phone and then finally we got to know what each other looked like, which was a pleasant surprise."

The long-distance relationship ended in February. It had lasted a year, with Chris visiting Brian three times, and Brian visiting Chris once. The other way they kept in touch was through the Internet. Chris set up his own page on which the two could chat privately and because Internet use is charged at local call rates it was also much cheaper than phoning. Keeping the relationship alive was also why he got the webcam, so Brian could see him while they talked. Brian was also supposed to get a cam, "but somehow he never got round to it".

Chris had previously run an online help and advice page for gay men, The Gay Advice Shop, but folded it when he couldn't cope with the volume of visitors. In the aftermath of his break-up with Brian he decided to launch himself on to the Internet public again, with a webcam page and his own chatroom based around it. By July of this year it had turned into a major hit. "It was quite a shock when it did take off. Visitors started voting for me on an American webcam league table called Jasbits. Suddenly I found myself in the top 10 and there was one week where I was online chatting every night and suddenly I found myself at number three. It was the first European cam in the top five. I was getting 1,500 hits a day and the danger was that my Internet service provider would start charging me commercial rates to be online, so I asked visitors not to vote for me and it went back to a more manageable level." Now he has about 500 visitors on weekdays and between 1,000 and 1,500 at weekends. "Seventy per cent are from the US, 30 per cent are from Europe and of those 20 per cent are from the UK. Initially there were very few Brits but in the past three or four months the British contingent has increased dramatically."

Chris admits to enjoying being a webcam star. His webcam is permanently set up in a corner of the living room. "I used to act a lot and sing and dance and all that jazz and there's a bit of theatre in me, and the web and the cam is a kind of performance. To some degree it's like a soap opera. When we went on holiday to Turkey last week guys wrote in in their hundreds saying how much they missed us and then when we got back we had loads of e-mails wishing Ady a happy birthday. There's a lot of people out there who genuinely care about us and are interested in what's happening in our lives."

Like a TV station, Chris publishes a schedule of when he will be live and on air. One evening a week, normally a Thursday, Ady takes the controls - "Initially Ady used to stay away from the cam but he warmed to it, I think he was tired of staring at my back all night when I was online." At weekends they go on the computer together, chatting with visitors. Although not a sex site, they are not averse to stripping off if the mood takes them, and the CJ-UK Gallery features a number of favourite, revealing portraits preserved from the cam. "I would never have sex on camera," says Chris. "But I would say I was a bit of an exhibitionist, and I can't deny there is an erotic frisson. I don't feel weird about people watching me and not knowing who I am. You can walk down the street and sit in the pub and people watch you. They may as well watch me when I know I'm being watched and I'm on my best behaviour and look good."

When I speak to Chris he is preparing to put up photos from his holiday on to the website. In the New Year he will review whether to continue with the site. Answering all the e-mails is demanding and he has now made so many friends through the page that he has less time and reason to go online.

The experience of Jen on the Goddess Cam, Britain's most popular amateur female cam, illustrates the downside of being a webcam star and a woman in an often aggressively sexual, male-dominated environment. Jen is a single mother. She has a six-year-old daughter, Shannen. After a tough period on her own after her husband left two and a half years ago, she has now moved back in with her mother, the resident warden of a sheltered housing complex in a Manchester suburb. Her younger brother is also at home - since the death of Jen's father a year ago, the rest of the family has pulled back together.

Jen began on the Internet by using the chatrooms. "I know it sounds sad," she says, "but it kept me going. It was at a point in my life where I was living on my own with Shannen. At night after Shannen was in bed I couldn't go out because it was just me, so I either sit and watch television or go online and at least have some kind of contact even if it's not face to face." After a while Jen got a couple of regular chat friends. "There were three of us, the three goddesses as we eventually called ourselves: Cindy who lives in Seattle who's 31, Babs in New York who's 41 and me, the baby, 28. Cindy was the really cynical one. She used to have disaster after disaster with men and she used to say, right, that's it, I'm having nothing more to do with men, and gradually we developed this joke set of rules, or how to be a goddess. Basically it means being a cynical bitch: never date a man who earns less than you do because he'll always want to borrow money, never let him see your payslip because he'll always be wanting money. It was our mission statement, and eventually it became the goddess site."

Jen had always been a gadget freak, she even built a computer for her mother, which now has pride of place in the sitting room. So when she heard about webcams in the States, she had to have one. It is now set up in her tiny bedroom-cum-office. As we sit there chatting, on camera, her daughter Shannen wanders in and shyly displays her expertise with her new yo-yo. Jen gently shoos her out.

The Goddess Cam was an instant, and unnerving, hit, she continues. "I don't know where all these people come from. It was a real eye-opener. I have this counter on my page and I'd see it jumping up and up, and I'd think, this can't be right, so then I put web-site trackers on and you can see where people are coming from. It's mainly Americans, I think they're all pervy men hoping to see a bit of flesh. You get e-mails that say, `Show me some skin, baby,' to which I would never respond. I have never taken my clothes off, all I usually do is sit here at the computer."

As time passed she felt under greater and greater pressure to have the camera on all the time. "I felt like I was performing. I was getting e- mails saying wave at me and so I'd sit there and wave and say, `Hello, Peter in New York' or whatever. It got to a point where I thought I'd better go online all the time in case such-and-such was on. But then my phone bills got higher and higher. It was pounds 250 a month just for the modem line and I was thinking, how am I going to pay this bill? I was probably addicted at one point."

Eventually, earlier this year, she reached a turning point. "My mother's got a caravan in Anglesea and I used to go with her most weekends and then I got to the stage where I thought, if I go, I'm offline Friday night, Saturday night and I'm not back on line until Sunday night, and then I thought, hang on a minute, this is a computer."

Jen now has a new job, working in the box office at Manchester City football club, which means she can afford to pay her phone bills. However, she now goes online less, partly because she spends all day sitting at a computer at work anyway, and partly because she realised it was becoming a problem.

Over the next few years personal webcams are likely to become as popular in this country as they are now in the States. Earthcam, an online directory of cam sites, has seen its worldwide database of webcams increase by 500 per cent since it launched in 1996, and traffic to its directory doubles every year. Although webcams may appear to be a sinister and voyeuristic intrusion, the early British cammers actually talk in terms of feeling in control. Some critics have drawn parallels between webcams and the recent film, The Truman Show in which Jim Carrey's character gradually realises his whole life has been one giant soap opera with secret cameras and actors manipulating his every move. But according to Dr Gareth Palmer of Salford University, who has studied the phenomenon of "real-life" forms of television such as closed-circuit TV and docu-soaps, "The things that happen to Jim Carrey are not of his own choosing. Webcams are about empowerment, it's about people taking taking charge of their lives and spinning out their own narratives and saying how they got that way - and they're happy to transmit that image."

It's a sentiment echoed by Charlie Charlton who runs the Charlie Cam in Liverpool, one of the few family cams, featuring his Slovak-born wife and son. "You choose which bits of your life you allow the world to see, as we all do anyway," he says. "It's a selective window into my world. I have ultimate editorial control with a webcam, whereas if I had a film crew in here they would have ultimate control. There's a concept in psychiatry called Johari's Window, which is like your window on the world and is divided into four parts: the part of you which is known to yourself and others, the part which is perceived by others but hidden from yourself, the part hidden from others but known to yourself, and the part that is hidden from yourself and from others. With a webcam I'm the selector, I make the choice about what I show"