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Nude Amateur Hour

At Voyeurweb, ordinary citizens exchange naked pictures of each other and foretell the future of the Web.
 
 
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Looking for pictures of nude soccer moms, accountants and students? Try Voyeurweb, the self-billed "highest frequented amateur photo site on Planet Earth." The site is a popular destination for the Web's ordinary folk -- if ordinary includes wanting to post pictures of oneself totally nude or engaged in explicit sex. The site is bursting with photos, the message boards are cascading and the chat room is lively around the clock. One 50-something female contributor named "jewels" affectionately refers to the destination as "our own little breakfast club."

Launched four years ago, Voyeurweb is the brainchild of 42-year-old Igor Shoemaker, an entrepreneur who says he holds citizenship in four countries including the U.S. and Germany. (He won't reveal the other two, "in case I need somewhere to run to.") A former top marketing executive at one of the biggest software vendors in the world (again, he won't say which), Igor quit his job after one too many reorganizations and took time off to pursue other interests. He surfed the Web and was struck by the way most Web sites treated content like a "one-way street." "Why are you using the Web?" he'd rant. "Why don't you just Fed Ex me the CD?" Convinced that content should be an interactive experience, he decided to ask "netizens to help me to build a site with their photos."

Today Voyeurweb draws about 1 million unique visitors a day (1.3 million on a recent Monday). People send in about 200 "contris" a day. Two eight-person crews work 18 hours a day reviewing and processing submissions. Contributors include a "story" along with their photos, and five editors provide "commentary." The photos vary in quality from the awkwardly posed to the artfully rendered. Content is organized into sections such as Voyeur Shots, Private Shots and Nude in Public. Shoemaker claims the company operates in the black. Most of the revenue comes from 400,000 subscribes who pay $20 a year for access to "RedClouds," the site's explicit photo section. Because of the risky nature of the business, Shoemaker says, the company operates out of five different offices in the U.S. and Europe.

By this point you're thinking, "Aren't we talking about just another adult site here?" But Voyeurweb is more than yet another porn emporium. It's a compelling demonstration of one of the things the Web does best -- providing a forum in which the users are also the producers. Voyeurweb shows what can be achieved if you combine a strong editorial voice with a popular format for user contributions and a regard for community.

Content is like strawberry jam, Sony of America Chairman Howard Stringer once observed. "The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets." When the demand for content exceeds the productive capacity of professional writers and producers -- as Stringer argues it has in the age of the Internet -- quality heads south. Sample the offerings of even the most professionally produced online entertainment sites and you get the idea that the "jam" is spotty at best. Building community around such sites -- an essential element for future financial viability -- is like trying to grow roses in frozen tundra.

But some Internet sites are bucking Stringer's sticky theorem by tapping a new and limitless source of free content: Ordinary Web users like you and me. Call it "user-generated content," "consumer created content" (Jupiter Research's term) or simply "interactive content," the approach offers more than just a solution to the "content problem." Guided by a distinctive editorial "voice," user-generated content can also be a powerful method for building strong communities of virile viral marketers. An as on so many other fronts on the Net, the adult sites are leading the way.

The personality of its eccentric and restless founder is what sets Voyeurweb apart from the many thousands of world-weary adult sites out there. Igor likes to call breasts "funbagos" and refers to the female receptive position as "WFI" (Waiting For Igor). Apart from a phobia about white cotton panties, he is an effusive and supportive commentator. "Igor is Da Man!" "@I@n" recently noted on the site's main message board. "Why would I submit my clips and captures to a copycat site and miss out on the chance of having Igor make his comments on them?"

Submitting "contris" to a site like Voyeurweb -- or any Web site -- requires a small act of courage. (Maybe a big act of courage.) People may be more willing to put their egos on the line if they feel there is a likable human being on the receiving end. "@I@n" adds: "How many Web sites have you visited and not known who the webmaster is?"

User-generated content on the Internet is nothing new. The early Web was largely built on the backs of user-generated content in the form of amateur Web sites of the "Uncle Art's Fly Fishing Homepage" variety. What distinguishes sites like Voyeurweb from those amateur efforts -- past and present -- is the "Law of Large Numbers."

Visit an amateur Web site on any subject at random and the content is likely to be mediocre at best. Even if you spend an entire day sampling similar sites -- a stultifying prospect -- you may get content from a few dozen persons at most. User-generated content sites, on the other hand, aggregate content from thousands of individuals. Out of all the flotsam and jetsam, gems are bound to emerge. In the case of Voyeurweb, some of the photos on its pages are as artfully erotic as any found on the Web. "We contribute because we like photography and we are very proud of our photos," writes one contributor. "We work hard to try and get good results and [Voyeurweb] is a great place to share them."

A non-adult humor site that has been taking advantage of the law of large numbers for years is Hecklers.com. The site's David Letterman-style "Interactive Top Ten" features user contributions on subjects like "Top Ten Reasons 'Xena: Warrior Princess' was canceled." (Reason No. 6 from nynyagene@hotmail.com: "Finally reached bra-shrinking threshold.")

When thousands of contributors send in photos, opportunities abound for "found humor." IloveBacon.com is a humor site that specializes in this type of twisted content. Mike W. sent in a photo of the tombstone for a couple named "DUMFART" ("Haunted by a bad name even after death"). Derek M. found a billboard for a car wash promising "the Best HAND-JOB in Town!"

Access to thousands of individual contributors doesn't mean that the "garbage in, garbage out" rule is suspended. Many of Heckler's Top Ten lists fall flat. No. 1 on the list of "Top Ten Things Israel and Palestine Can Agree On": "It sure is hot out." Hmmm. And some of the pictures on Voyeurweb look like rejects from a gynecological handbook. A visitor to any of these sites -- adult or not -- has to dig to find the good stuff.

Voyeurweb has attempted to proactively boost the quality of "contris" by implementing a numerically based user-rating system and paying $200 to first-place winners each month. A new feature, "Igor's Photo Lessons," offers straightforward advice on basic technique ("Focus focus focus"), posing ("Is less more?") and content ("pictures can tell stories"). Still, it's hard to say whether "Igor's Photo Lessons" have helped anyone shoot more aesthetically pleasing "spread invitation" photos of his wife.

A mass appeal to contributors, just the same, can yield surprising results. "I started a special contest titled 'Shaved in front of the cam.' More than 2,000 ladies lost their pubic hair during that contest," Igor recalls. "That was scary. Much more than I expected."

And never mind if the quality or the level of creativity of the submissions is uneven. Another powerful argument for employing user-generated content is that it seeds community. Sharing content -- even pictures of naked people -- serves as a pretext for people of like minds to gather together and socialize. "We get feedback on our pictures," writes Voyeurweb contributor nikki, and "requests for new pictures." Interactions eventually steer toward other subjects, even topics like the upcoming election. "This place is like a big family," writes another contributor.

User-generated content is not only an integral part of the history of the Internet, but it is increasingly a movement that draws power from widespread discontent with how content is packaged by the entertainment industry. "There's a big reaction among consumers against packaged, slick and promoted content targeted at an audience," Packet Video Networks president Rob Tercek observed in a Salon interview last December. Tercek, who has worked in every new medium from cable to the Internet to wireless, believes that user-generated content will become an issue for major media companies. Individuals may spend less time consuming professionally produced product "because they're busy making and exchanging their own content."

The breakthrough for the user-generated content approach may not come in entertainment but in news. I've heard more than one savvy content entrepreneur say there's money to be made in developing a news program where ordinary citizens contribute the stories, photos and videos. Tercek sees the day when millions own video-enabled cell phones and everyone has the potential to be an "electronic news gatherer. Episodes like the Rodney King incident will be ubiquitous," he says. "The eyes of the world will be everywhere all the time."

Whether that's a good thing or not isn't exactly clear. But there seems to be little question that, in the age of the Net, the user -- not the content -- is king.

John Geirland is the former editor in chief of Shockwave.com.