"Cool to be real!" -- it's the chirpy slogan, and name, of a new Web site for preteen girls that's chock-full of self-esteem-boosting messages and helpful tips on leading a healthy lifestyle. What could be wrong with that?
Well, maybe the fact that the site is actually a thinly cloaked advertorial for the joys of eating beef, brought to budding carnivores everywhere by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. This is an I-got-a-cow-to-sell-ya sales job that insults the intelligence of the average 12-year-old.
At cool-2b-real.com, you can learn about how "real girls" have "strong bodies and strong minds" and "friends who understand, friends who care, and friends who keep you real." Friends like these nice cattlemen who'd like to get you on their ground-chuck gravy train from ages 8 to 80! Unearthed by the bloggers over at memepool, the site is a none-too-subtle ploy to turn sugar-and-spice little girls into red-meat chompin' teens.
Michelle Peterson, a spokesperson for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which launched the site in December 2002, says it's "for girls, 8 to 12 years old. The site really gives them information on how to adopt lifelong healthful habits at a critical time when they're growing and becoming more independent. We wanted to provide an opportunity for girls to get some nutritional tips, and to help them adopt some healthful habits."
"Cool to be real?" Translation: "Cool to eat beef."
The site's "real girl" poll asks, "What type of beef do you most like to eat with your friends?" Possible answers: Steak? Tacos? Burgers? Subs? With 15,279 votes counted, 73 percent went for tacos, with steak a distant runner-up at 13 percent.
The site offers recipes for such red-meat delicacies as Beef on Bamboo, which calls for a pound of smoked beef sausage, and Beef Taco and Cheese Pockets. Damn the childhood obesity epidemic, full Cheese Pocket-eating speed ahead!
"I think that the site is fine if you aim to be really fat and really constipated," said Andrew Butler, a campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He sees Cool to be Real as "directly in response to the growing popularity of vegetarianism. The greatest number of new vegetarians are teenage girls."
Granted, PETA runs its own Web site to shamelessly recruit kids to its vegan, animal-rights cause, but whatever your position is on frog dissection, at least PETA's up front about what they're selling.
The cattlemen's site, for all its exhortations to girls about the benefits of being "real," is less forthright. It dresses up its pro-meat messages with an extra helping of you-go-girl pluck: "Remember 'real' girls aren't perfect. They don't worry about being the skinniest, prettiest, smartest and most athletic," counsels one page. Pass the tacos!
So, are the prepubescent girls who visit the site actually falling in love with red meat, when they catch their breath while reflecting on their own inherent self-worth?
It's hard to tell. But here's a clue. When prompted by the site to list their personal strengths, the girls offer up commendable traits, such as "can play the cello pretty well," "can write stories that make people cry," "I can read a big book in three days," "I can stay outside forever," "I'm very patriotic and I don't liter (sic)" and "I'm very tall for my age.
Not a single girl responds, "I can finish a whole prime rib, all by myself!"
Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon Technology.
He has blond hair, blue eyes and a sarcastic sense of humor. He's an artist, writer or musician, between the ages of 28 and 32. His idea of fun on a first date is a walk in the park, but he hankers to go on an African safari.
And this man -- whoever he is -- likes me. The Internet told me so.
Just a few walks in the park from now, I could be on the savanna in Zaire with Mr. X, trading acerbic remarks about the redoubtable mating habits of wildebeests.
There's just one hitch: I'm not convinced that this secret admirer actually exists. He may just be the bot who loved me.
A flirty e-mail from firstname.lastname@example.org tipped me off to this mystery man's tender crush. "You have a secret admirer!" gushed the message. Like half a dozen similar Web sites -- eCrush, Crushlink and SecretAdmirer.com among them -- SomeoneLikesYou plays Internet go-between. The gimmick: An anonymous e-mail crush notification service can pave the way for romance without the risk of rejection.
But while most of these "crush" sites operate above-board, proudly listing the founders' names and e-mail addresses, the cupids behind SomeoneLikesYou and its corporate sister site, Crushlink, play hard to get. The sites conceal the identities not only of the source of your crush note, but also of the people who run the services. Even some of the publicly available domain-name registration information about the sites is fake.
This secrecy, along with the sheer volume of admiring messages spewing from email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, has raised speculation that there's less romance than savvy marketing going on here. Competitors accuse Crushlink and SomeoneLikesYou of spamming any old e-mail address they can scrape off the Net with love notes, building membership by preying on sad-sack lonely-hearts -- then peddling affiliate programs to those members to bring in some cash.
"My dog has gotten 'someone has a crush on you' e-mail messages -- she's a cute dog, but no one has a crush on her," says Karen Demars, co-founder of eCrush. "My belief is that they are sending 'someone has a crush on you' messages to people who have not been legitimately crushed."
One consumer advocacy group in California is even threatening a lawsuit against Crushlink for misleading consumers about their love lives. And vigilant webmasters and anti-spam crusaders, suspicious that the sites are simply cynical e-mail harvesters, charge "spam!"
Forget "Who's my crush?" The more interesting question is: Who's the crushmaster?
Is Mr. Crush really Mr. Spammer in a cupid's costume, breeding false hopes among the lovelorn with fake messages about nascent crushes that don't really exist? Or could the crushmaster be a scorned lover turning his vindictive rage on the Net's lonely millions in a frenzy of mixed messages? Or, maybe, just maybe, there's actually this much latent love out there on the Web, just waiting for the right database to come along and play yenta.
All the accusations of nefarious behavior and the secrecy surrounding these sites have made unmasking the identities of the frenzied cupids behind them a true Internet whodunit. After all, for geeks, speculating about the identity of a mysterious webmaster is as captivating as thinking about who might have a crush on you.
By following the geeks' trail in the ether, I found out who the crushmaster is -- and just like Mr. Right, he's the kind of guy you'd least expect.
SomeoneLikesYou and Crushlink represent a more extreme version of what all crush sites do. They inspire you to reveal your own crushes' e-mail addresses by dangling the lure that they know who wants you.
To find out what guy would be such a fourth-grader as to reveal his interest in me in this cheesy way, I first registered at SomeoneLikesYou, giving away a bevy of valuable demographic facts about myself in the process, like my date of birth and my ZIP code. Then I filled out a profile from a fixed menu of canned choices, indicating my hair color, eye color and ideal first date.
Finally, I was invited to offer all my own crushes' e-mail addresses up for sacrifice.
If I guess who my secret admirer is and turn over his e-mail address to the site, our identities will be revealed to each other, and we could be pricing safaris before the week is out!
But if there's no love connection, every address I've given to the site will get a message announcing "You have a secret admirer!" and the whirlwind of anonymous, crazy-making romantic madness just spreads.
What makes SomeoneLikesYou and Crushlink different from the rest of the sites in the genre is this: they bait hopeful visitors to hand over as many e-mail addresses as possible by trading clues for e-mail addresses.
The more e-mails that you reveal to SomeoneLikesYou, the more hints you get about your admirer's identity, like his hair color and his approximate age. Five e-mail addresses generates one clue. I gave away more than two-dozen e-mail addresses before the system ran out of hints about my admirer. Not even the most love-sick puppy has that many real crushes.
So, what's stronger -- the hunger for any clue that might unmask your own admirer, or the desire to protect the in-boxes of your friends, loved ones and colleagues from random romance spam, which could potentially embarrass you in the process? "She has a crush on me! Yikes!" And is it really spam if friends or colleagues have sold out your address in their own search for romance?
I elected to take a middle road, which wouldn't embarrass me or abuse my friends' trust, but might turn up enough hints to reveal my crush. I gamed the system by entering random, made-up e-mail addresses, potentially muddling the in-boxes (and sanity) of total strangers in pursuit of my own love interest.
Crushes -- they make people do crazy things.
But the system anticipates this simple ploy. If a made-up e-mail address I turned over bounced, SomeoneLikesYou just demanded another one.
This clues system helps explain why the SomeoneLikesYou and Crushlink romance virus has spread so far. A single wistful crushee hankering to know who likes her can generate dozens of "crush" messages to people she doesn't even know, which will likely spur some percentage of those suckers to spread the love as well.
That's got the California Consumer Action Network, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, considering filing a lawsuit against these online cupids, according to the group's attorney, Joe Hughes. He charges that the site is violating the state's laws against unfair and deceptive advertising.
"We're concerned about the fact that it's a spam generator. They're implying to the user that they're going to find out if the e-mail address they enter is someone who has a crush on them, although it's probably more likely that someone is doing just what they're doing, which is guessing who had a crush on them." Could a class action lawsuit of lovelorn crushees hurt by messages about fake admirers be far behind?
The more I learned about the "someone" who likes me, the less real he seemed.
The e-mail that I got from this "secret admirer" came to an official corporate address that no friend would use. Besides, the "hints" I received about my admirer bore an uncanny resemblance to what I told the system about myself when I registered.
Maybe my account had just become a bit of currency to buy someone else a "hint." But the competitors to SomeoneLikesYou and Crushlink in the online crush space say that it's more than just this hints system that's generating all those befuddling crush messages.
Clark Benson, the co-founder of eCrush, says: "Crushlink must have bought tons of spam lists. The site went from nothing to a million visitors in no time. In about two weeks, everybody's accounts here were getting Crushlink e-mails." Among the addresses at eCrush that have gotten "crush" messages from Crushlink and SomeoneLikesYou: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and Maggie@ecrush.com, a joke account for his co-founder's dog, which is published on the eCrush site.
Demars, the eCrush co-founder who owns Maggie, charges: "They're obtaining e-mail addresses in a way that is either technically generated or generated out of a hostage marketing situation (want a hint? Just give us five e-mail addresses!) that are just not truly the product of someone having a crush on you."
Miles Kronby, the founder of SecretAdmirer -- the grandfather of the concept, launched in 1997 -- won't name names, but says that he's watched the e-mail crush concept take a hurtful, debauched turn: "The problem is, some unscrupulous people running these things decided to abuse this system as a kind of spam generator," he sighs.
Perhaps the most extreme is the Crush007 site. (Note: Clicking on the link will open a lot of advertising windows.) Based in Malaysia, it sends a fake crush e-mail to an unsuspecting stooge. The site then goads the sucker to reveal all kinds of personal facts, including "how many times does she/he masturbate a week?" and "names of his/her biggest crush." The homepage makes no secret about its motives: "We have developed this website just to help you find out who your friend's crushes are, and also not to mention, their biggest, most well kept secrets." Fear for the dorkiest kid in the class, thrilled that someone actually has a crush on him, who is about to be the victim of an Internet humiliation machine.
But carping competitors aren't the only ones who think that all these anonymous romance e-mails have taken a sick and twisted turn. Several geeks, webmasters and spam fighters have put these love messages to the spam test and gone on a Web vigilante mission to find out who's behind them. If they couldn't find out who had crushes on them, at least they could figure out who was generating all those love notes!
"Warning: crushlink is a spam scam," warns "Steve," a geek who refuses to reveal his real identity for fear of being sued, on a Web page set up to discuss his experience with the site. After he received a "crush" message, he became convinced that Crushlink was a system for harvesting e-mail addresses, so he registered for the site with an account at his own domain that he'd never used for anything else. Several months later, this account got a message from something called "Jennyslist."
Justin Beech, the webmaster behind Broadbandreports.com, went on his own sleuthing mission to unmask Mr. Crush after webmasters on his site groused that Crushlink and SomeoneLikesYou were fomenting spam, not romance. Although the WHOIS records for both sites are at least partially fake -- for instance, the phone number for Crushlink is listed as 800-000-0000 -- their Web server IP addresses don't lie. Beech linked both sites to Jumpstart Technologies LLC, a "direct-marketing" company. His research led him to finger Johann Schleier-Smith, a Harvard graduate and currently a physics grad student at Stanford, as Mr. Crush.
But it was Rob Whelan, a 40-year-old CIO for a retailing company in Tennessee, who finally turned up the guy who will admit to being the president and co-owner of Crushlink, Mr. Crush himself.
When Whelan got his "crush" message from Crushlink, he was immediately suspicious: "I'm not 12, so it seemed odd that I would get a message like this," he says. He contacted anti-spam organizations, the Federal Trade Commission and CyberAngels, a group that protects children online. After a few weeks of mucking around, threats to sue prompted a nervous phone call from one Greg Tseng, another Stanford physics grad student, who also went to Harvard as an undergrad.
As a sophomore in college, Tseng started a dot-com called flyingchickens.com, which sought to take on Harvard's Coop by selling textbooks. (Johann Schleier-Smith, also then a student at Harvard, co-founded the site.) Flyingchickens soon merged with something called Limespot.com, a college-event listing site.
In short, these two embodied the late-'90s, dot-com poster-boy ideal -- techie, entrepreneurial undergrads so brimming with Big Ideas that they couldn't wait for graduation to start launching companies.
These weren't the stereotypical lowlife spammers that Whelan expected to find on the other end of his Crushmail. "Greg Tseng is a very bright young man, and unfortunately he's chosen this vocation for himself," sighs Whelan. "He does have a good entrepreneurial spirit, but I think that he's just misguided."
Whelan worries about the hurt feelings of kids who won't think twice about dumping their friends' e-mail addresses into a system that will send anonymous messages misleading them that romance is just at the other end of an "@" sign. "These guys think they're going to make a lot of money and not hurt anybody, but they're really just going to make a lot of money," says Whelan. "And they're not going to ever know or see or hear from the people who are hurt by this."
But worse than teenage false hopes, Whelan is concerned that parents have no way to opt their kids out. And he charges that the system lures kids to lie about their ages to Crushlink's and SomeoneLikesYou's marketing partners, who don't want 12-year-olds as customers. That's because one way to get "hints" to your admirer's identity on Crushlink is to register for an affiliated site's marketing program, like Netflix, which pays Crushlink a bounty for every person who signs up. SomeoneLikesYou takes this scheme even further. Even if you guess your crush correctly, you either have to sign up for an affiliate's program or pay $14.90 to find out who your admirer actually is.
After much stalking, both online and off, I finally tracked Tseng down. Although he demurely refused to speak to me on the phone or answer any specific questions about the charges leveled against his online love-note machines, he did send a few comments in one e-mail.
He maintained that the secrecy surrounding who's involved in the company is simply because they're in "stealth mode." But he outright denied spamming anyone with missives that might breed romantic delusions: "We do not sell or rent our user list to third parties (a.k.a. 'spam')," he wrote. "We do not purchase lists or harvest e-mail addresses. All of our outbound e-mails are either user-generated notices or communications with our registered users. We send precisely zero e-mail advertisements."
At least in one limited instance, this statement appears false. Remember Jennyslist, which messaged "Steve," after he registered for Crushlink with an address that he'd used for nothing else? A business acquaintance of Tseng's reveals that Jennyslist.com is a project of Jumpstart Technologies. Isn't this advertising? Tseng declined to comment.
Oh, maybe we're all just such doubting Thomases about the idea that anyone might actually like us that we can't face the possibility of new romance, even when it shows up right in our in boxes. Tseng seems to think so: "Some people may be confused about the origin of the 'Someone has a crush on you' notices but actually every single person that receives such a notice was listed as a crush by a registered user (and they should come to CrushLink to find out who!)."
Really? Then, prove to me that this person who claimed to admire me really exists, I demanded. But Tseng stayed mum. He had the perfect excuse, not that he bothered to offer it: Selling out the guy who likes me (if he exists) would violate the site's whole premise -- crush notification without the risk of rejection.
So maybe the evil genius of SomeoneLikesYou isn't that it's a love machine at all, but that it's an Internet Narcissus' pool. In this scenario, the love automaton feeds you hints about your "secret admirer," based on the profile you entered about yourself. You have so much in common!
More likely, the messages I got from SomeoneLikesYou came from someone who offered up my e-mail address when he or she tried to game the system to find out who likes them -- just as I did.
Or maybe there really is some blond-haired, blue-eyed, sarcastic guy biding his time surfing African safari Web sites, while he nurtures his fervent hope that the Internet will be our go-between.
Only the matchmaker knows for sure, and that pathological flirt's not telling.
Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon Technology.
One of the favorite gifts that Charisma, 17, has gotten from a fan of her Web site was a "Fantasia" DVD trilogy. It was just what she wanted, because she'd asked for it on her Amazon.com wish list.
But that's nothing compared to the loot that a fellow "cam girl" friend has raked in off of hers: "Somebody bought her a really nice digital camera, a graphing calculator and a $100 gift certificate," Charisma says. Sheila, 18, got a new $129 webcam, while "Katneko," 19, raked in teen reading classics like "Catcher in the Rye," "Of Mice and Men," "To Kill a Mockingbird," plus a Depeche Mode CD, a scanner and a $250 gift certificate to the site Fetish Factory.
The gifts came from total strangers and online friends alike, people the girls had gotten to know through their Web sites. Katneko's younger sister, 15-year-old Brandi, was so impressed by all of the goodies arriving at their home from people the girls had never met in person that Brandi set up a personal page on her big sis's site so she could beg for her own loot. Brandi's pages bear this label: "underaged piece of ass." (Her sister quickly points out that this is a joke.) Among Brandi's heart's desires on her wish list: four Sailor Moon dolls.
Teen webcams have met the e-commerce version of the wedding registry -- the wish list. And the result of this virtual marriage is an online beg-fest that makes it easy to take candy from strangers on the Internet. Kids as young as 15 are getting into the act of asking for handouts online -- toy and books and CDs and, of course, webcams -- so their online fans can get an even better look at them.
"I don't think that it's weird that people I don't know buy things for me," writes the 17-year-old who calls herself "Perfekt" on her Web site. "They're gifts, and like all good things, acceptable. ;-)" Even so, Perfekt got so much booty from her fans that she has since taken down her wish list: "A lot of people were very generous -- too generous in my opinion -- around the holidays and the guilt was too much for me to swallow."
Cam sites range from simple photo galleries to elaborate diaries and art projects; some have live cameras and others just feature stills captured from video cameras. They're as diverse as the girls who create them -- and, in the grand tradition of their ancestor, Jennicam, they offer a strange mixture of distance and intimacy. There are cam boys too, but -- chalk it up to hetero-horndogging -- it's girls who rule in the popularity game of the cam portals, gathering fan clubs and shaking down gifts.
The wish list is the perfect tool for cam kids because it allows them to ask for exactly what they want and have it sent to their house without ever revealing a home address -- the e-commerce vendor, whether it's Abercrombie & Fitch or Amazon, doesn't reveal the "wisher's" location. So the relationship between the online pen pal or fan can remain entirely virtual, yet still produce the goods.
The Internet may not be, as it is so often caricatured, one big cesspool of pedophiles and pervs searching for unsuspecting and underage kids to prey upon. But the spectacle of teenagers displaying themselves online in exchange for material favors is something that could make anyone a little queasy. Still, in the search for online sugar daddies, young or old, it's the kids who understand what power they have -- through what they choose to reveal and what they conceal -- to titillate and suggest, with just a smile, or a bit of a tummy, or more.
The cam universe is "basically like high school blown up exponentially," says Marissa, 24 (old, by the standards of this world). "It's a huge popularity contest. Popularity rules." Some of the better-known cam girls have fan clubs with hundreds of members who swap photos and exchange e-mail with their idols. Earlier this year, the cam world even had its own version of the reality TV show "Survivor" -- called Survivorcam -- where 16 cam kids competed for $300 by completing various silly, bawdy and outrageous immunity challenges in front of their cams, some claiming to be as young as 14. The Survivorcam motto: "Outpose. Outshine. Outwhore." Marissa won the contest, but was accused by other contestants of showing too much skin to do it.
Like everything else in the insular webcam community, the meaning and morality of the wish lists is hotly debated by the cam kids themselves. Are you a "cam whore" if you put up a wish list? If you don't show your tits, does that mean you're not "whoring for hits"? What if you put up a wish list, but don't show skin?
Katneko's site Linuxkitty self-consciously mocks some of the seductive come-ons of the cam world. Her cam and diary entries have won her 500 members in her fan club, along with those copies of "Catcher in the Rye" and other teen classics, but, she says, "The Internet community views me as untouchable because I won't get naked on my cam." She recently mused on her site: "Some people show tits, and some people don't. I wonder what it is I'm whoring to get presents exactly, since I'm not the showy-fleshy type of girl."
Other girls don't see wish lists that way. "To me, it's the newest form of prostitution," says Camilla, 19, from Trondheim, Norway, who has had her own site -- now at Wallflower.nu -- since she was 15. She doesn't have a wish list on her site because she sees such blatant solicitation as a quid pro quo transaction, where fans who give gifts expect something, like a topless or suggestive photo via e-mail, in return. None of the cam girls interviewed for this story copped to any such payoff.
Charisma says: "I never promise to do anything in return for the gifts other than to say thank you or send a thank you card. I'm not tricking people into sending me things. I think strangers on the Internet like to send things to other people because they're lonely, and they try to find their happiness in our surprise and thankfulness of their gifts. Sure, you could possibly argue that we're 'taking advantage' of these depressed people, but, if they aren't sending us gifts, they'd probably be doing something just as useless with their money."
Marissa, who in her offline life is a junior lobbyist in Washington, mocks the wish list phenomenon on her site. Her wish list parody begins: "If you love me, you'll buy me things." She says, "I'm boldly mocking the people who are buying people stuff, just totally mocking the prostitution angle of wish lists." Needless to say, no one has bought her anything.
Other cam kids abhor the begging and commercialism. "I don't have [a wish list] because I don't want strangers buying me stuff. My site isn't out there to make money for me, it's just for my pleasure only," says Ashley, 17, a self-described vegetarian Virgo with three pets -- "two dogs and a 13-year-old brother." Ashley gets so many e-mails from drooling fans begging for naked pictures of her that she offers this chilly FAQ on her site to fend them off. "I get annoyed by people asking about my appearance, and the same 20 questions repeatedly," she explains. This is from the same girl who has her fans show her the love by sending her digital images of themselves with the words "fuck frosty" in the picture, which she posts on her site. Go figure.
Actually, racier versions of such photos are the transgressive currency of the webcam world; fans take photos of their naked body parts, often with the name of the site written on their cleavage or naked butt, which the cam kids then proudly display on their sites. Galleries of such devotion can be found on sites like Infinity Decay, State of Confusion and Xeres.com.
All this butt-flashing and begging for goodies from strangers may seem tawdry or crass, but Lynn Ponton, M.D., author of "The Sex Lives of Teenagers," cautions against jumping to conclusions. Psychologists have found that offline diaries of teenage girls are filled with lists of things that they'd like friends and parents to buy for them; the online wish lists just represent the next step -- showing their desires to the world. "There's always a thought that someone like Santa Claus is going to come along and take care of you and not expect anything," Ponton says. "Kids still believe that they're going to get all these free gifts in life." For Ponton, the cam sites represent the kind of risk-taking kids engage in to form their identity -- and which can go too far.
What do the parents make of all this? Several kids said their parents wouldn't even know how to find their Web sites if they gave them the URLs, much less what their children do online. Others say their parents use the diaries on their sites to keep up with what's going on in their lives.
And Mom can be a big fan: "My mom loves the site," brags Katneko. "She thinks that I'm beyond hilarious, because I talk about everything from guys having dinky winkies to guides on butt sex." Other parents hope that all this monkeying around online could be the ticket to a hot career. Brittany, 19, says: "My dad thinks I should apply my skills to getting a computer-related job, and that's pretty much the only thing he says about it."
Brad Danielson, 35, a Maine Web designer, is one older guy who has seen a lot of cams. He's one of the creators of Eyefever.com -- one of the many cam portals from the tame to the explicit and smutty (like Stile Project, Superhyperdemonchild and Sinnocence) that cam kids submit to in hopes of getting listed and ranked by popularity.
"At 14, 15, 16, I also think that girls are really starting to come into their sense of what their sexuality can do," says Danielson. "I think that some really enjoy that attention for whatever reason." After all, isn't it potentially safer to show a little skin on a webcam than pretty much anywhere else? "They're pushing their sexuality out into the world a bit, pushing it out to the public to see what kind of response they get, while still in a safe environment," says Danielson. "It's even safer than if some young gal decided to wear something revealing on a beach or on a street -- you're not going to get whistled at or approached."
Of course, as Ponton points out, there may well be risks for young women in revealing themselves to strangers online, too -- just different kinds. And even Danielson admits a certain unease about the cam sites: "I don't know if I'd want my 14-year-old daughter doing that, if I had a daughter."
"I think that these girls are just now discovering that they can make men do things, buy them things, and especially say things just because the men think that they are desirable," says Bridget Therease Guildner, an 18-year-old from Corvallis, Ore., who posts her online diary, writing and photography on the Web, but no voyeuristic webcam. "However, I think that the reason why we don't see many 25-year-olds running cam girl sites is that with experience comes the realization that being used is unpleasant, even if you are using the person back."
In the do-it-yourself world of the cam sites, the girls choose exactly how much they want to reveal or conceal. "Some of the young girls really aren't showing that much skin to be worried about it," says Marissa. "They're showing enough to have that Lolita-esque hint of desire. It teases vulnerable men -- 'Maybe if I buy her stuff, she'll show me more.'"
But the Web has a way of making even the most straightforward picture of a 14-year-old caught on her webcam into a pornographic image. "Everything can be sexualized online because it all lies in your imagination," says Marissa. Some cam portal sites create databases of hundreds of images lifted without always asking permission of the girls in the images. The sites mix nude images with photos of ordinary girls that are hardly suggestive at all.
It's the mixing of soft-core porn with lifted photos that raises the ire of the cam community. Daign of Daign.com, who specializes in writing bitchy reviews of cam sites on his lunch hour at work, recently posted a call-to-arms to send hate e-mail to an especially egregious site: "Did you know that our friends over at the pedophile site ... are back up? So nice that a bunch of 40 year olds are jackin it to your daughter's webcam."
"I think that these databases take undue advantage of the girls. The line for me is drawn when they are divorced from their personalities and become literal objects," says Bridget Guildner.
It's the occupational hazard of being a cam girl to have your image stolen without your permission and put into a vast database of cam images without even your name on it. That's the contradiction of the cam girl world -- the technology that gives the girls a place to be themselves and show off is the technology that can strip them of their identity and reduce them to a nameless database of images.
For the girls themselves, running cam sites is about a lot more than scattering their image across the Web or nabbing wish-list booty. Brittany says that running her site since she was 17 has made her better able to deal with the scrutiny of others: "It's helped me be more open and accepting of myself. I used to be terribly shy. Now, I'm more comfortable with people passing judgment on me. That used to be one of my biggest fears, people judging me without knowing me. Now, I couldn't care less."
The girls also learn about the demands of a public life. Perfekt, who has had a site since she was 13 and is now 18, says, "Some days, I want to break my camera. I hate feeling obligated to take pictures, and yet, if you don't update your cam, it's like you're not in circulation."
You know who you are.
You haven't bought a thing for any of your 27 adorable nieces and nephews, and you dread the throngs of wild-eyed parents stalking Toys "R" Us this time of year, their sweaty desperation sweetly underscored by the schmaltzy tunes of "Jingle Bell Rocks" and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." You're in holiday shopping denial. And you'll probably end up loading up your credit cards with overnight delivery charges at the last minute, buying out the Web's entire stash of 5-foot-tall plush Harry Potter goblets of fire on the afternoon of Dec. 23.
Not so fast, e-commerce Santa.
Consider this: How would your adorable little nieces and nephews feel if they knew your shameless procrastination contributes to the destruction of the planet, sacrificing their priceless futures for a few moments of greedy joy on Christmas morning? Don't you realize that all those air-shipped "next day" deliveries are five times as fuel-inefficient as gifts sent by plodding trucks?
OK, so the little buggers probably couldn't care less. But do you?
Now that we're fully in the throes of the ritualistic consumer frenzy that is the holiday shopping season, probably the last thing on most Net shoppers' minds is what impact all that clicking to buy has on the environment. The truth is, even policymakers, social scientists, environmentalists and engineers don't really know for sure. Researchers are only now beginning to study what e-commerce means for the Earth. The first major conference on the topic, the Joint Symposium on E-commerce and the Environment, in October in New York, brought together 100 researchers from the likes of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Ford Motor Co. to compare notes on everything from e-commerce and energy consumption to land use.
"Everyone is just starting to wake up and realize that e-commerce might have environmental effects that we aren't aware of," says H. Scott Matthews, a researcher with the Green Design Initiative, a faculty and student research group at Carnegie Mellon University that is conducting one of the few major studies of the issue.
But no one knows exactly what those effects might be. "Anyone who tells you that they've got this figured out is probably exaggerating," says David Rejeski, a former researcher at the Environmental Protection Agency who is now at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.
It's easy to imagine how good shopping online could be for the environment. After all, retail space with its hardwood floors, heating and cooling costs and huge parking lots can be a bigger drain on natural resources than warehouse space. And think of all the trips to the mall in the old gas-guzzling SUV that one efficient delivery truck speeding to and fro in a single neighborhood can eliminate. Plus, e-commerce cuts out entire steps in the distribution chain, presumably making the experience of buying online better for all. Click your way to a better world, baby!
But what such back-of-the-envelope analysis leaves out is the knotty vagaries of human behavior. We buy three shirts online only to ship back two that don't fit by air. We order virtually, but print out the receipts for our records. We buy five different books from Barnes & Noble online and have them sent in five different packages because we can't bother to wait for the total order to be filled. Wouldn't one trip to the bookstore have been more energy-efficient? And then there's the instant-gratification itch. It's the nagging impulse that says: "I want it now!" -- or, at the latest, tomorrow morning -- even if that means that an airplane will have to fly whatever it is to me from the other side of the country, so I won't have to bother to get off my couch.
Will shopping online bring new efficiency to our acquisitiveness or only give us one more way to clutter up the world with still more stuff? Should we be heartened by the news that the rate of growth in our energy consumption is slowing, or dismayed at how much easier it is than ever before to buy something we don't really need?
One early report on the issue, released last December by the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, a nonprofit that helps companies reduce greenhouse gas emissions, paints a rosy picture of a clean e-commerce future. "Christmas shoppers can minimize the environmental impact of gift giving by shopping online and shipping presents directly to the recipient," says Joe Romm, executive director of the center, citing the benefits of replacing car trips with delivery trucks and energy-intensive retail space with warehouses. The energy savings aren't hard to fathom. "If you're going to have the gift shipped anyway, it's got to be better to order it online." You save not only a trip to the mall but the extra environmental costs entailed in sending the product from a warehouse to a retail outlet and then to your friend or relative.
Romm's study found that even shipping two 5-pound packages overnight would result in 40 percent less energy consumption than a 20-mile round trip to the mall to fetch the same hefty gifts. So maybe we can all click our way to a cleaner, brighter future. It's these kinds of calculations that have led Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, to brag about the environmental benefits of e-commerce.
But other studies haven't been so bullish on online shopping as a green alternative to old-fashioned bricks and mortar. Researchers with Carnegie Mellon's Green Design Initiative scrutinized Amazon.com's proud pledge to deliver every pre-ordered copy of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" to eager readers via FedEx overnight on its July publication date. More than 250,000 books shot around the country in a dedicated fleet of more than 100 airplanes and 9,000 trucks, enabling the online bookstore to compete during the hyped release with the timeliness of a neighborhood bookstore. Just think of how many extra boxes it took to ship those books individually instead of in crates of 10 copies each to stores.
And while a truck efficiently delivering many packages to different homes may theoretically eliminate dozens of car trips, in reality that's not how most people shop. "The marginal effect of buying a book at the mall is small if, as part of the trip, other items are bought or other things are done," wrote the authors of "Harry Potter and the Ozone Layer," an article in the November IEEE Spectrum. Most important, air transit uses five times the fuel of trucking. Loath to draw any definitive conclusions on early research, they declared, "The net effect of e-commerce is unclear." But the basic question remains: Do we really need books overnight? Matthews says the Green Design Initiative has invited Bezos to a workshop on the topic of e-commerce and the environment in June, but, alas, "he hasn't responded to our requests yet."
Yet another study, this one by researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, found that buying a computer online was worse for the environment than purchasing one from a store, especially when overnight shipping was factored in. They found that only when a company also used the Web to streamline its inventory and distribution were there environmental benefits. Simply selling online wasn't enough to make a difference.
So what's a Net shopper to believe? "We're moving into the new economy and we don't know much about the environmental impact, and no one seems to care," says Rejeski, formerly with the EPA. Rejeski decries the absence of government funding for research on the topic: "It's ironic to me that the U.S., which has so quickly identified itself with the new economy, hasn't put up the money to identify the social and environmental impacts of the new economy."
One real wild card in the whole ecology vs. e-commerce equation is human behavior. "The big question mark is we don't know how people's shopping habits are going to be changed due to online shopping," says Nevin Cohen, a fellow at the Tellus Institute, which organized the October symposium.
"Will people just buy more and more things because it's even easier? And will people want it air-shipped overnight, and will they air-ship it back when they don't want it?" asks Alissa Gravits, executive director of Co-op America, a nonprofit environmental group. If e-commerce makes it so much easier for the "born to shop" masses to buy things, some ecologically minded critics worry the additional consumption could wipe out whatever incremental environmental benefit there may be to transactions done online. Josh Karliner, executive editor of Corporate Watch, a watchdog group, puts it this way: "The biggest environmental problem in the world today is American overconsumption. So if we're going to consume more and more resources by buying more superfluous goods over the Web, then e-commerce is only contributing to the biggest environmental problem in the world today."
Still, there are some macroeconomic energy consumption trends that are heartening. According to Romm, between 1992 and 1996 the demand for energy rose 2.3 percent a year, while from 1996 to 2000 the demand for energy rose only 1 percent; at the same time, gross domestic product increased.
"That's a very large drop," says Romm, a former acting assistant secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. "I think some of it is because the Internet allows a type of growth that doesn't require as much inventory and as much energy and as much transportation."
Even in the face of inconclusive research about the ecology of e-commerce, there's one fact that's crystal clear. Mainstream shopping sites could do more to help. E-commerce companies could painlessly offer a "green" shipping option. All it would take is marketing ground shipping as a way to help the environment, and letting consumers make the choice themselves. "I've suggested it to Amazon.com, and it isn't a priority for them," says Cohen. With e-commerce still struggling in its toddlerhood it would take an enlightened e-tailer, indeed, to fight the customer's urge for instant gratification. Who wants to point out how much slower your distribution is than a trip to the store?
Romm says the tightening of belts at many dot-coms may paradoxically benefit the environment. "I think that with the collapse of the NASDAQ and the dot-coms you're seeing a lot fewer companies offering free overnight [shipping] because it's too big of an expense." How's that medicine? Fewer freebies may ultimately be good for you!
And don't be so quick to blame the companies. There hasn't exactly been an outcry from concerned consumers demanding greener shipping options from e-commerce sites, or even an outcry from environmental groups, for that matter. "I think a lot of people are still in the honeymoon phase with e-commerce to think anything bad about it," says Matthews. "It's none of the companies' faults they're providing the service that customers want. If no one wanted it overnight, they wouldn't be selling it."
And environmental groups may also be in the throes of just such a honeymoon. Joel Makower, president of the Green Business Network, points out that many environmental groups are engaged in e-commerce partnerships with sites that market so-called green products. "I think the environmental groups have to look fairly carefully at their own e-commerce offerings before they can participate in any larger conversation about the environmental impact of the Internet. It's clear that the environmental community is fairly smitten with the technology, as an organizing tool and as a tool to sell 'green' things from T-shirts to toilet paper."
If there is one single message for environmentally conscious online shoppers, it's this: Don't wait until the last minute to do your Christmas shopping -- if not just to save your sanity, then to help save the energy sure to be consumed in all those "next day" FedEx and UPS orgies. "People need to know that all these little choices add up," says Rejeski. "Most people don't think about that, and most sites aren't telling people."
Sidebar: Six ways to shop greener online
Don't panic. You don't have to buy only locally made, hand-knit hemp smocks on the Net to make your online shopping have less of an impact on the planet. Here are a few simple things you can do to be environmentally friendly when you shop with your mouse. Visit Responsible Shopper for more tips.
1. Don't, don't, don't choose overnight delivery. Air shipping is a massive energy hog, generating five times the fuel emissions as shipping by truck. Choosing the slower ground-delivery option is probably the single biggest thing you can do to lessen the impact of shopping online.
2. Combine orders. Order three or five books or CDs at a time, instead of one. Wait until your order is complete to have it shipped to you. This cuts down on wasteful packaging and extra deliveries.
3. Send your orders to your workplace. If you work in an office, UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service are probably already stopping by, so this eliminates extra deliveries. It also cuts down on wasteful missed delivery attempts.
4. Buy less. Do you really need more stuff? Just because shopping online is convenient doesn't mean you should indulge. Some environmentalists fear that while shopping online may ultimately be more energy-efficient it will make shopping so easy and effortless that we'll all just buy more stuff, in which case there will be no overall environmental benefit.
5. Don't print out the e-mail receipts and order confirmations. Curb your addiction to hard copies. Just remember to back up your e-mail when you back up your computer files.
6. Recycle the boxes. Duh. Did we really have to tell you that?
He calls himself "A1sexy," and he has the chiseled, rippling torso to live up to his screen name. Seated in what looks like a black lawn chair, wearing nothing but a hat, he smiles warmly into the camera. Every few seconds A1sexy's grainy black-and-white onscreen image reloads, each time revealing a slightly different from-the-waist-up view of the young black man and, behind him, a rumpled bed.
"Show us your cock!" exclaims the teacher at the front of the classroom, where she's flanked on either side by A1sexy's giant, hunky image. The instructor proceeds to type this order into her keyboard. "You don't hear that in every class," she says aloud as an aside to her ogling students.
I have seen the future of online learning, and it is a fluorescent-lit, brick-and-mortar classroom in a downtown San Francisco high-rise, where students engage in live sex chat with exhibitionistic strangers, while the teacher shows them how it's done.
In Exploring Cybersexualities, a very-adult education course offered by San Francisco State University's Multimedia Studies Program, students get initiated into the technologically mediated sexual underworld with step-by-step lessons in the juicy thrills (and unique boredoms) of cybersex. It's $100 for a two-day course on how to get off with a chip, a kind of guided tour of techie sex toys and smutty sites, many of which have been around for years. And whatever the course's limited academic pretensions -- alas, it's not for credit -- the syllabus is a whole lot more voyeuristic than scholarly.
In this alternate scholastic universe, shouting out in the middle of class -- "Tell him to show us his ass!" -- is not only acceptable, but an encouraged form of class participation. And don't bother being furtive about checking out sites like Jail Babes, a personals site for female inmates. The URL for that naughty diversion is right there on the virtual reading list.
Who could have guessed that pedagogical instruction in the finer points of sex chat occurs in the same office building that houses buttoned-up companies like AT&T Global Network Services? Granted, the course work in the Multimedia Studies Program usually runs to such tamer fare as "Advanced Web Applications with Perl" and "Macromedia Flash II." But now the school proudly boasts that it's "the first institution to add the stimulating subject of cybersex to its curriculum."
Whether that's really something to brag about isn't at all clear on the morning of the first day of this supposedly first-ever cybersex class. Just four students and two reporters drag themselves out of bed (or away from their sticky keyboards) on a rainy Sunday morning, the day of the National Masturbate-A-Thon; it prompts the obvious question: What if you gave a cybersex class and nobody came?
The ringleader of this eye-popping effort to bring triple-X porn sites and cyberdildonics into the classroom is one Mary Madden, the multimedia program's webmistress. It's soon obvious that Madden, who holds a master's degree in social psychology with a concentration in female sexuality from San Francisco State, should be awarded the first Ph.D. in surfing for smut.
The 30-year-old webmistress -- at 6-foot-1 -- is quite striking, in a hip, pointy-glasses, webmistress-ish way. She comes across as disarmingly reserved for a cybersex radical, making her pleasingly professorial. Discreetly, she never reveals her own proclivities to her pupils, although she does mention that she engaged in flirty online chat with a preteen sysop when she was only 11. Since then, she's assembled an extensive body of knowledge on everything from CyberSM to the Real Doll, which takes the form of seemingly endless naughty links.
Madden has assembled much of the material for the class in the form of detailed notes and links posted to the course's in-depth Web site. Hearing this, one student grumbles: "I could have saved $100 and bought porn videos with it."
The class begins with the kind of open-ended discussions that you'd expect from an undergraduate seminar, with students gamely typing their answers -- every desk has a computer with a Net connection -- and then reading them aloud. Soon we are engaged in deep epistemological quandaries: Is masturbation sex? Or, does another person have to be involved for it to be sex? For the purposes of this class, cybersex is ultimately defined as: "sex that depends to a greater or lesser extent on computer technology."
Before we get to any of the smutty stuff, Madden offers this official disclaimer: "Much of the material discussed and viewed in this course may be considered embarrassing, offensive, mentally disturbing or even nauseating ..." This draws titters from the students, who surprisingly, are almost all young women; there's a computer art student, a Web designer, a stripper looking for tips on taking her act online and a gay man who's involved with the nonprofit San Francisco Sex Information. At one point during the class, I catch a guilty-looking guy lurking just outside the door, but he doesn't dare come in.
So, why does anyone take a class to learn how to get hot with computers? And better still: Who needs to take a class to find out? The computer art student, Jean McIntosh, later tells me her reasoning: "In all the classes I have taken, pornography has never been addressed ... I think most people treat pornography like it's a bum on the street. They think that if they ignore it, it will go away." She's in the conceputal stages of an art project about porn and female sexuality, and she's doing everything from touring sex shops to taking this class for it. Plus, some of the most sophisticated Java scripting is on porn sites, she informs me. McIntosh, for one, will not be denied her full technical education.
Scholarly interest in cybersex has so far run more to the theoretical than the hands-on. Sociologists, anthropologists, cultural critics and film studies professors have all attempted to explain and interpret the intersection of sex and technology. One academic publication, the Journal of Sex Research is planning a special sex-and-the-Net issue. And a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Kent's Darwin College in Canterbury, England, is getting a degree in "Sexual Futurology and Computer Fetishism," but after six years of study, her 80,000-word thesis is still unfinished. But it is not as if there are freshman textbooks on this stuff.
With no established canon to draw on, Madden's syllabus casts a wide net, drawing from science fiction, film and the defunct magazine Future Sex to help define the topic. We ponder clips from "The Lawnmower Man," "Brainstorm" "Sleeper"-- remember the orgasmatron? -- and even the schmaltzy "You've Got Mail!" What we're supposed to learn from the mini-survey of modern film is that cybersex is not all digitized porn and chat. Far from it; or at least it could be.
From our pop-culture study, we imagine immersive virtual reality sexcapades; fetishistic body suits with 3D tactile feedback; experiencing sex from the viewpoint of the opposite gender; recording your own sexual experiences to play them back; sex with tailor-made androids.
So, what has stopped us from realizing these outrageous visions of Hollywood and outlandish predictions of futurists? The Net. In Madden's view, it isn't just the lagging technologies, but also the explosion of online porn has been a huge distraction for those who would realize the early 1990s cybersex hype and hope. Yes, there's been some recent noise about a cybersex suit with DVD interaction, but apparently it's stalled because of one delicate problem: Get fluid on it, and you could short-circuit the suit -- and yourself. Still, efforts are crawling along to get the kind of force feedback -- essentially, an interactive sense of touch -- that it would take to make most cybersex visions a reality. Stay tuned.
And don't forget it's the artists, not the commerical hucksters, who brought us some of the first and most original visions of cybersex, Madden notes. She cites, for example, Pit Schultz, a German who in 1994 conceived of an "interchange format for digitized orgasms" -- a kind of MP3 for orgasms, so they could be shared and exchanged freely. Forget music -- free the orgasms!
The class focuses largely on "primary sources," many of which will be old news to anyone with even a mild curiosity about cybersex. There's "Virtual Valerie II," a vintage 1990 CD-ROM game in which the goal is to make Valerie have an orgasm. (Valerie is a horrifically disproportioned big-breasted blond graphic, with long red fingernails, who masturbates incessantly.) Making Valerie come involves moving a mouse rapidly from one erect nipple to the other and then back to her vagina in a repetitive-stress-inducing triangle. She moans thoroughly irritating, canned indications of her pleasure throughout: "Fuck me. I never knew it could be like this. Fuck me. I'm gonna. I'm gonna. I'm gonna come." There's a button that you can push to make yourself come instantly -- in the game, that is -- but then you immediately lose all your points. "It's not about you. It's about Valerie," Madden cracks.
Now the class starts to feel more and more like online porn for dummies. There's a brief lesson in searching for dirty pictures and video through the likes of Persian Kitty and Scour. "Let's look for naked pictures of Britney Spears -- is she old enough yet? I think she might be 16, so we better not do that ..." Madden stalls. "How about women and dogs?" suggests her assistant, Linda. On Scour, this leads to a link to "Reservoir Dogs," the movie.
Then it's time for some hot chat on Bianca's Smut Shack, where the class assumes the handle of "smutty girl." But we seem to bring the temperature in the room down with our queries: "Does your wife know? Would you be upset if she were doing the same thing?" This line of questioning draws cries to "lighten up" and the swipe: "So why do you call yourself smutty? ... you seem very tame to me."
Finally, Linda goes into a private chat to show us how it's done. She describes herself as "26, flaming red hair, tall, big tits, strong thighs ..." (She's gray-haired and in her 50s.) Despite her best attempts: "I'm wearing just a red thong, which is actually a bit small ..." she soon discovers that her partner-in-chat is chatting away with "Beth" in another chat room. A no-good chat cheat.
"I'm bored," announces Madden, indicating that the tedious chat lesson is over, even as she assures us that chat can indeed be hot: "You have to focus on it, and you have to be direct and tell him what you want."
The Match.com lesson in online personals, which follows, is an evidence of just how easy it is to find someone if you just know what you want -- our search for a red-meat eating, smoking, large drunk of a man or woman living within 25 miles of San Francisco turns up some 500 matches. Who said it's hard to find someone online?
But the climax of the afternoon is definitely the late-in-the-day video and chat encounter with A1sexy, who even goes so far as to flash his naked butt when we beg him properly. Interacting with him is exciting, if only because it's a startling reminder that there are actual human beings in the flesh out there, not just crass and garishly doctored graphic photos and endless inane steamy chatter and technology.
The lure to bring the students back next week: a live teledildonics demonstration -- essentially, sex toys with remote-controlled input over the Web. Plus, students will present their class projects: their own otherworldly visions of what cybersex could be, ideally digitally rendered, naturally. The rest of our homework: Surf those links, and spend an hour in a chat room.
Who's to say if it qualifies as higher learning, but this could be the first class where no one wastes time dreaming up excuses for not doing their homework.