Smile! You're on webcam

A man is attacked in Bournemouth. The crime is reported by a teenager sitting in front of a computer in Bombay. Danny Bradbury logs on to an unexpected internet phenomenon
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The Independent Online

It's not every day that you get rescued by a group of voyeurs that you've never met. But when Bev Holzrichter found herself badly injured and unable to move, it was webcam watchers who saved her life.

It's not every day that you get rescued by a group of voyeurs that you've never met. But when Bev Holzrichter found herself badly injured and unable to move, it was webcam watchers who saved her life.

Holzrichter, the owner of KB Hilltop Stables in Charlotte, Iowa, was helping a horse give birth when it kicked her, shattering her right leg. Unable to move, and miles from her nearest neighbour, the badly injured Holzrichter was saved by people who had been watching the birth on the stable webcam. Seeing the accident, several people quickly found the number for the Charlotte rescue services and alerted them. "There were calls from England, Australia and around the world," she says.

With webcams pointing at everything from horse stables through to city streets and remote volcanoes, there is no end of choice for internet snoopers wanting to watch distant places and events. But, if we were to turn the cameras back on the viewers, who would we see? And why do they watch?

The first question is easy to answer - you just look at the server traffic, and survey results from webcam sites. Fifty per cent of the visitors to camvista.com, a live webcam site, are from the US, generally of a higher income bracket, slightly older, and evenly split between male and female.

UK viewers are generally younger, with a lower income, and 70 per cent are male, says Alex Kilgour, of Network Webcams, the webcam services company that runs Camvista.

But this doesn't really answer the important question - why are they watching? Some of the most common reasons are pragmatic. For example, many people use webcams as a travel resource, says Kilgour. People like to see places that they are thinking of visiting, which is why famous landmarks such as Big Ben are popular webcam destinations. Others, such as the Met Office and helicopter pilots preparing for flights, use it for tracking the weather.

But perhaps more interesting are more intimate reasons for watching the cameras. Kilgour recalls a Texan whose daughter is living in Oban, Scotland. At a set time she'll stand and wave at him on the camera. "He was very disturbed because the Oban webcam wasn't working for a couple of days and so he couldn't see his daughter waving to him," he recalls. Other webcam services report that people arrange to be in front of webcams when girlfriends are looking so they can hold up signs proposing marriage.

According to Martin Lloyd, the webmaster at ukwebcameras.co.uk, homesickness plays a large part in motivating webcam viewers. "It's not usually the locals who watch these things, at least not after the initial novelty has worn off," he says. "It's expats and people who have moved away from the area looking for a glimpse of home."

The high expat count doesn't surprise Patricia Wallace, a psychologist at John Hopkins University, and author of The Psychology of the Internet . "To be able to go back and look at something you know is very comforting," she says.

But webcam audiences don't just surf for individual pleasure. Many people form communities around special interests. Holzrichter says that her webcam's audience has many regular watchers and a discussion board, which has almost developed into a type of family since the rescue took place.

While the best communities grow organically, some have tried to foster communities of web watchers. In 2003 Jay Walker (the founder of Priceline.com) set up US HomeGuard. The initiative aimed to set up dozens of webcams pointing at potential terrorist targets. Original plans during the 2003 launch called for a community of volunteers to monitor the webcams for anything suspicious.

A more successful webcam community is the Oklahoma City Ghosts Club, a paranormal-research group that has put webcams inside an abandoned hospital. The club president, Erik Smith, explains that web surfers from across the world watch in the hope of seeing paranormal activity.

"The majority of them log in and are fascinated by it, and are drawn back to it again and again," says Smith. "Some of our people will stay 24 hours a day, and leave for a couple of hours just to sleep."

Jet, one regular site watcher based in the Netherlands who watches for around eight hours every day, says that she and other webcam watchers have seen what they believe to be paranormal phenomena on the cameras, which keeps them coming back for more.

Jet's experience is common. Webcams encourage a common psychological phenomenon called intermittent reinforcement. When an event happens, however infrequent, it reinforces a person's commitment to an otherwise mundane activity. "You don't know when a reward might come about but if it comes about at odd times, just enough, you'll keep responding," says Wallace. "It's similar to what happens with slot machines."

But more significant events can be the biggest drivers for webcam audiences. Brian Cury is the CEO of the New Jersey-based webcam services firm EarthCam, which runs the earthcam.com webcam portal. He had webcams positioned around Manhattan when the World Trade Centre was destroyed. "Shortly after the second plane hit, our website was pounded with traffic," he says.During the week before the Pope's death, traffic to cameras in Rome spiked heavily.

One might be forgiven for thinking that webcams are purely a passive medium. Nevertheless, some webcam viewers do treat the devices as social tools, using the camera to reach out to strangers. Kilgour says his company has several webcams in UK bars. One viewer complained when a Belfast bar's camera stopped working because he was missing his virtual pint. And in London, other bars have played host to virtual chat-ups. "A guy has phoned from Australia to the bar itself," he says. "He asked if they could buy the girl in the pink outfit a drink, because he'd been watching her on the webcam for two hours."

One case of reaching out via webcam is that of Andrew Pritchard, of Boorawa, New South Wales, who was watching the Exmouth seafront webcam ( www.exmouthcam.co.uk) at 3.30am in England, and saw two people acting suspiciously near the area's Octagon café. He called the police, who investigated the scene. The suspected burglary turned out to be little more than a domestic argument, but the police thanked him for his vigilance nonetheless. Pritchard produces a religious internet radio programme and blesses webcam subjects from afar.

In most cases, people out and about in public are not aware that they are being looked at. This has severe privacy ramifications, says Dan Solove, a law professor at George Washington University. Legally, privacy is considered minimal when people are in a public space, but Solove is sceptical. "People do expect privacy in public," he says. "People don't expect someone to be watching them at every moment."

If they could, the authorities would become webcam watchers too. After rioting took place in London, Kilgour said that the police approached Network Webcams to ask for saved images. But, because the Camvista site only saves one image per hour for its archives and discards the rest, it was unable to help.

Nevertheless Gus Hosein, visiting fellow in information systems at the London School of Economics, believes that the growth of camera culture is having an effect on the public. "What I worry about is that it cheapens the thought that goes into privacy protection, in that people become more accustomed to cameras everywhere," he says. "They stop expecting privacy."

But sometimes people can turn the tables. Last year, on the remote and rarely visited White Island, New Zealand, an unknown joker left a small pink plastic dinosaur in front of a volcano webcam. The country's Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences hoped that volcanic sulphur might erode the new mascot - but a visit to the site (at www.geonet.org.nz/volcanocam.html) shows that he's still there.

There are no regulations on publicly placed webcams, and their number (and the audience) seems bound to grow. As viewers look for ghosts, save strangers, see loved ones and even administer blessings, one thing is clear: reality TV has nothing on this.

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