California WebDorm – see people candidly 24 hours a day

Flaco's Glass House at San Diego State

— 'But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

-- Matthew 6:6

The secret is out. On March 29, The Leeza Show devoted its attention to what it called "Real Life EdTV" -- people who live their lives, or parts of their lives, before cameras that broadcast live, 24 hours a day, to the Internet. (Leeza also chatted with some ex-members of The Real World, but as they admitted, life after being processed in the MTV editing room isn't really life.)

Though she gave time to Jenni of JenniCam, a woman who has cameras throughout her house and lets people watch her live her life for $15 a year, Leeza spent the majority of the show talking to and about Chad and Kyla. Chad and Kyla are a couple who have placed a webcam in their bedroom and who, at least once a day, have sex in front of that camera. For two bucks a day, you can watch. "We think sex is good," argues Chad in the introduction to their website. "It's a beautiful, creative celebration of our love. Why should we object to other people enjoying our enjoying each other?"

Late in the show, Leeza sought reaction from a bunch of college kids sitting in the audience. The kids were themselves under surveillance, members of WebDorm (www.webdorm.com), a website that provides a prolonged peek into the dorm rooms of 30 college students nationwide, as well as bios, journals, guestbooks, and a dorm chat room. She asked Vega (his screen name) what he thought of Chad and Kyla. "I think it's good," he replied. "I don't have a problem with it. If you don't like it, don't go to the site."

"Would you do it?"

"I wouldn't do it, but I'd watch it." The audience let out some titillated oohs and aahs, chuckling at this young man's frankness. Vega's smile spread into a face-splitting grin.

Vega hails from Rancho Bernardo and is currently a junior at San Francisco State. You can see him on Camera 3 in the California WebDorm. In his online journal entry from March 18, he writes, "So I went on the goddamn Leeza show today. They've got the good-looking staff and superficially fake attitude, but it's all managed to put together and packaged nicely into daytime TV. I REALLY WANNA GO CO-HOST ON THE VIEW. I THINK MY OPINIONS AND VIEWS WILL BE RESPECTED THERE. AND IF I GET STAR DRUNK ENOUGH, I CAN PROBABLY BONE HER. ENOUGH ABOUT SEX WITH STAR JONES, LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX WITH BARBARA WALTERS! EW!"

Besides sex, he mentions drugs -- "Went to my first rave Saturday night -- OFF THA HOOK loud music and drugs are the shit..." -- and rock 'n' roll -- "When [Method Man] stepped to the mic, respect was in order for the realest rap music since Tupac Shakur." He also posts personal messages to friends, weighs in on movies, and makes nice with the ladies.

By way of explaining his "off tha hook, no holds barred" journal entries (and presumably, that grin on Leeza), he says, "I'm a broadcasting major. Any time I have a chance to do something in class that has to do with an audience, I just want a reaction, be it negative or positive." Example: "In my newswriting class, we had to do an interview." Vega interviewed his roommate, who had been in the Navy in the '80s. "I interviewed him on prostitution and all that stuff. The professor played it in front of the class. The girls were, like, 'Ew!' and the guys were, like, 'Oh, funny!' But all around, there was something, there was reaction, instead of all the other stories about homelessness or farms."

Vega, who hopes to have a talk show of his own someday, is a natural for the WebDorm, the sort of media-conscious extrovert you would expect to find online in front of a camera. Though he often forgets it's there, he enjoys sharing. "On Friday," he tells me, "we had people over, and it was pretty cool. We were just hanging out in front of the camera and being stupid in front of it and being drunk."

He's not alone. Once, "a girl had three beer bottles lined up in front of the camera. The bottles [took up] half the screen and her face [took up] the other half. You could just tell she'd had a few too many. That was pretty interesting."

(The image calls up a memory. The first time I was ill from too much drink was in college. A classmate followed me into the bathroom stall, stood over me and asked with dripping sincerity, "How you feeling? Not too good, huh? Pretty sick?" He had a high old time, enjoying the knowledge that I wanted very much for him to leave me to retch in solitude but was powerless to stop him. The WebDormer, though more vulnerable in the sense that anyone can watch, can at least move the camera as he or she pleases.)

As interesting as it might be, that kind of show is the exception. And so far, nobody has been drunk enough or brazen enough to have sex on camera, though Vega says there has been some smoking out. "It just depends. The camera's on all the time. You have to catch us on Friday night -- if we're home. Most of the time, we're just on the Internet, typing papers, studying, yeah, right, whatever. It's like mundane life, a lot of it." Some WebDormers show themselves sleeping; the still shot, which refreshes every 30 seconds, displaying their unconscious bodies as the song, pretty much just shooting the breeze, scrolls along below.

Vega became a WebDormer because "it was something new and interesting, with backing -- Collegeweb.com." He enjoys "meeting people in general, talking to people who are cool -- it's all good. It's fun." Fun for him; why would anyone watch? "Just to have a window into typical student life. It's interesting sometimes, it's boring most of the time, but it's something that you didn't have access to two or three years ago."

Though he is not an actor -- this is life, dammit -- Vega is something of a performer. Flaco, a 19-year-old sophomore at San Diego State appearing on Camera 1, is not. His reason for joining is similar to Vega's -- "Something new, different, maybe be part of something -- you know, this has never been done before" -- but his manner is nearly opposite. His journal entries are infrequent and brief; between his job and his schoolwork, he says, he doesn't have much time. And unlike Vega, his mind is not on the reaction he provokes.

His longest entry concerns his girlfriend: "I just got off the phone with Vanessa and we had a really great conversation. Vanessa is one of my best friends and my women [sic]. She makes me see things that I normally wouldn't. She always brings a new POV to a topic or something. It's really neat to have someone that you click with most of the time. She also makes me feel good when she says go go go go faster faster faster."

From there he goes on to muse that guys often refer to babies as "kids," while girls refer to them as "babies," as well as the complementarity of people in relationships. The line about "go go go go faster faster faster" sticks out, because it's so unlike the rest of the entry.

A guestbook post from Vanessa returns to the theme: "Baby, you're so GOOD, and you know what I mean! Go, Go, Go! I can't wait to see you again, and I can't wait for some of that hardcore ---- that you do. I love you with all my heart. See you soon. Love always, your princess, Vanessa."

I visited Flaco in his dorm room, a blank-walled single (except for the sign saying, "You are on camera while in this room -- WebDorm"), and asked him why he laid out his sex life for public perusal. "On The Leeza Show, the girl from JenniCam said something like, 'Well, I'm doing it anyway, no matter if you know about it or not, so...' I don't know, it doesn't bother me... You know what? You're starting to scare me now. I've never had anybody [point out] that 'You're open with your relationship.' I'm starting to realize how out there it is.

"When we were walking in [to the dorm], I said, 'I'm going home [for spring break].' You said, 'You're going to Indio? [a fact I learned from his online bio].' See, I find it strange that you know a lot about me already. It's strange, in a way, because people already know.... So you can't lie to them.

"I think a lot of these chat rooms are an escape from reality. People have anonymity, so it gives them the ability to create whoever they want to be for that time period, and other people don't know." With WebDorm, "People know who you are. You have to be yourself.... I thought about this -- how it's affected my life. I think it's affected it in this way -- I can't lie, because I'm on camera."

As an example, he points out that his boss could check on him if he called in sick, to see if he was really in bed.

Flaco attended The Leeza Show with Vega and Diva, a female WebDormer going to school in Florida.

"It's kind of weird when you meet them, because you already know a lot about them. You already know them, but you haven't really met. Diva, when I met her, she came up and gave me a hug and said, 'Hey, how ya doing?' "

Flaco, "an average person going to college, working," thinks high school students might be interested in what college is like and might use the site as a resource. He also sees it as a potential community builder. Collegeweb president Alex Chriss concurs, calling it "one of the only places on the Internet that you can find a college chat room about college. A good portion is just light comments back and forth, but a good part of the time, they are actually talking about college issues. Some of them talk about what parties are like. A lot of them talk about different fraternities. Certainly classes, what majors they're taking.

"What you see in a lot of these TV shows and movies is a stereotype of the classic college student -- the Animal House college kid. We weren't necessarily trying to prove that wrong; what we wanted to do was do our best to show what real college was like. We're trying to get a diverse group of people. This isn't like The Real World, where I think they try to pick people that are going to be interesting for you, because I think what you get out of that is a sort of warped sense of what 'the real world' is like. We make no promises as to how interesting this is, how exciting each of our WebDormers is going to be. We just wanted to get a good diverse population of college students."

The site opened February 1 and is now doubling its traffic every three weeks. One of those visitors, "Alicia from high school," offers a greeting to Flaco in his guestbook, saying that the site is "pretty cool -- not trying to invade your privacy."

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