by Mark Allen
Is there any word that screams “early internet” the way “webcam” does? It was the hey-you-never know, get-famous scheme of many a late 90s ex-celebrity, porn star and plain agoraphobic. All you needed was a webcam plugged into your computer, a dial-up 56k modem and some code, and you could broadcast a new still image every 60 seconds to your viewers. Then just sit back and let the fame roll in as millions (why not?) of people tuned in to watch you eat cereal in your bathrobe at 3 a.m. The possibilities were limitless.
This was long before the goal of the internet was to create a meme that landed you a television show (and, needless to say, eons before the concept of a ‘web series’). If you Google the subject you’ll learn that Jennicam was the first personal (non-porn) webcam site to hit it big. It’s true, she was. But Jennicam was never a favorite of mine, maybe because she was so popular (it felt less like a discovery to find her) and her site lacked style. And lots of other personal webcam sites came and went without making much of an impression. But then came Rex Booth, a gay man in his 20s living in San Francisco. Rex had platinum-cropped hair and a gaggle of colorful friends. His 24-hour webcam site was called Rex’s World — and this series devoted to the history of the early internet would be incomplete without paying tribute to it. Among other claims to fame, Rex was, arguably, one of the first online “oversharers,” a topic he discusses here. In its heyday, Rex’s site was so popular that it spawned a surge of imitators, its own online network of personal webcam sites called “Gaycams,” and a devoted audience of voyeuristic fans who knew every inch of his living room, every detail of his social life and all his cats’ names.
Date created: 1996
Wayback Machine earliest archive: January 24th, 1998
Internet History Relevance: webcams, oversharing, voyeurism, exhibitionism, 24-hour reality shows, alternatives to television
Mark Allen: What were your pre/non-internet inspirations?
Rex Booth: I loved the television when I was 2 or 3 years old. As an only child the TV was my friend, brother, sister. My friends dubbed me “Mike TV.” My favorite shows were “Laugh-In” and The Osmond Brothers’ morning show. In grammar school I liked Free To Be You & Me with Marlo Thomas & Friends. I also used to tape people with a cassette recorder a lot when I was a kid, like the family singing Christmas carols and after-meal chat with the men-folk, or in the kitchen with the gals, or interviewing my friends or cousins, or sneaking to my room and confessing to the recorder. In high-school it was drama class. I was in a lot of plays as a kid, and in my teen years. Later, I explored different art mediums.
Thinking back, did you have any ideas about doing these things publicly before your site?
I guess with journaling, like a diary. In that kind of writing I was talking to an audience sometimes, long before I started my “Rex’s Rambles” section on my website. And of course “scrapbooking,” and picture-taking a lot as a kid. As I mentioned before, I tape-recorded little interviews with others and thoughts from myself. I think I’ve always documented my life in one way or another.
Do you remember the first inspiration where you thought, “Eureka! I should make my own webpage!”
Yes. It was at the Center for Electronic Art in San Francisco, where I worked, and we were expanding our classes to internet design. We set up our very own server, something I had never seen before. The guys who did it were from the San Francisco Exploratorium and explained to me what it was, and so I started creating my very own website just to explore the technology, so we could teach it to the students. We had advertised that we had “internet experts” and when I asked my boss who these experts were he said, “Well, you know more than they do.” I knew I had to learn the technology, and my personal website became my experimental playground. I used my own website as an example for my students and eventually registered my own domain name: Rexsworld.
Where/how did you learn to build with raw html? Was it hard to set up or find server space?
See the story above. I learned hands-on at a school that was pretty cutting edge: they taught web-design even before it was in college classes, and we were sometimes learning the technology the night before we were teaching it! There were a great group of students and artists at CEA, we inspired each other with our digital projects and we learned quite a bit from each other.
Did you use HTML “frames?”
You bet! I used everything that came out at least once. Now I wouldn’t, but back then it was a cool thing! I’m getting a techno-boner just talking about it.
At what point did you decide to use a cam? Was it hard to set it up?
I was teaching a multimedia workshop at CEA and the client was the Gorilla Foundation, with the goal of creating a website for Koko the gorilla. We thought it would be great to be able to interact with her since she knew sign language. An AOL chat and also a webcam were some of the things we wanted to do. So, I used Rexsworld as my experiment. I explored other people that had set up webcams like Jennicam and Sean Patrick. I looked up (stole) their code. I set up a little black & white cam-ball and started uploading to my server. My students were the first people to watch me on my webcam, and during the workshop we would watch my kitties at home.
I think that was going on the first time I ever visited your site, the early days of when it was black and white. You were in front of a group of students in a white room, in a shirt and tie and platinum punk hair, and so handsome. The cam was broadcasting from your desk. Then suddenly you were back at your old-fashioned San Francisco apartment. Nothing was explained. It was confusing, sexy, futuristic… I’d never seen anything like it.
I think I felt your eyes on me that day.
One thing I always noticed about the technology on your site was how one feature seemed to organically lead to the next, one page then another, then another, until it was like you had your own little multimedia “network” running, with you and your friends as the cast.
Yes, I would agree. I think I was attracted to almost a timeline-like layout with my gallery, and my online diary called “Rambles.” Like you learned more about me each day you experienced. With the cam, I used code to create the pop-up window so you could watch me and then able explore different parts of my website or go to chat section I made and talk to other people watching me. The chat was were the real community started growing because I could talk back to my viewers and they could ask all those questions, and requests! After a while a certain protocol developed in the chat where others were in there answering the questions even if I wasn’t there. People became friends from the chat, and began meeting in real life. When I realized I could add the live radio show with it all and it was like television, that’s when it really took off. One of my favorite fan photos is a picture of a group of Rexcam folks meeting in New York, and they put a Rexcam shirt on a blow-up doll so I could join the party… I love that pic! My buddies in real-life became part of my cast as well, Gene, Geno, Jim, Kevin… they all started getting their own followers and own websites and cams. I always considered my kitties as part of the cast as well.. so many questions emailed to me were about my kitties or captures of people watching my cam and seeing only my kitties.
Cats on the internet? Okay, so sometimes you went to crazy gay parties at other people’s homes with your live cam, and obviously just plugged your laptop in at their place. But how did you manage walking around the sunny streets of San Francisco during Folsom Street Fair that time with your cam? When I saw that it kind of blew me away at the time. I was thinking, “OMG, he could potentially broadcast from anywhere!” Was that hard to set up?
A brand new technology had been released in San Francisco called Ricochet. It allowed me to hook up a “walkie talkie” to my computer that let me get a remote internet connection. With my laptop I would hook that up and be able to walk about the streets, carrying my laptop, uploading images as I went. Getting a connection sometimes was hard, and keeping it… having to reset the connection or losing it. The beer was the worst and the hardest on my computer and cam. Despite the technology, keeping it dry and safe from booze during a big party was the biggest challenge.
Ha! What was interesting about your site was that your 24-hour cam often broadcast the rooms of your apartment empty when you weren’t home, sometimes all day. Yet there were still lots of people tuning in. One day I remember you walked into your apartment carrying the new Madonna CD that had just come out that day, put it on and started dancing around your apartment to it, seemingly “alone.” Your viewers went nuts in the chat rooms! A very meta-gay moment.
I remember that day. I remember dancing quite a bit on the cam, and people wondering what I was listening to and guessing in the chatroom. The chatroom was great for that because people could interact with each other and make comments back and forth, the “reXperts” filling in newbies with what they needed to know and what they knew of what was going on. They knew I was at work, or when I was coming home, etc. Those “reXsperts” were the ones that would be waiting for those “moments” when I turned my attention to the cam and did something for it… the chat would always would get busy at that time. They were the ones that would endure the hours of “nothing,” maybe kitty coming to the cam and posing a bit. My cats would take over sometimes when I wasn’t around. There was also other stuff on my site, like my “reX’s rambles” and daily pics gallery with highlights of each day, with captions. So I think that gave people time to explore my site and get to know me a bit while there was nothing on screen.
Why do you think webcams became so popular when the internet first happened? And why do you think they eventually went out of fashion?
Webcams brought another dimension to a personal website. People could interact with someone live and see something as it was happening (every 60 seconds added to the suspense sometimes). People are natural voyeurs, and the newness of the technology made it addictive to some. They got involved with the daily lives of the people they were watching. People told me things like they left my webcam on their computer all day and thought of me as a virtual roommate. But I guess webcams evolved like all technology, and how we interact and use the computer these days, with Facebook and mobile phones, etc., there’s more availability for people to be video conferencing with friends and family. The novelty isn’t there anymore, with everyone doing it. It isn’t like, “Wow! Did you hear that someone is uploading their life?” Now everyone talks about walking their dog and eating pizza and breaking up on social media. These days it’s not as fun to be a stalker, or a exhibitionist.
What are some of the things you feel would have been easier with your site today that you couldn’t do in the late 90’s/early 00’s?
The blogging and Facebook-ing, Twitter-ing, YouTube-ing… it all would have made it simpler. But it would not have been as unique as it was if everyone was doing it. I would have loved some of the easy blogging software being used now, for making quick updates to my website. I spent hours editing pictures, uploading and writing script and HTML that is done very quickly with web editors and on social media sites.
At the time, what kept you going when there was nothing else like you on the internet?
There were others like me… Sean Patrick, Planet Concrete, Rage… Gaycams! I think the community of “cammers” kept me going as far the technology and being inspired at what others were doing, and the different types of people and personalities that were surfacing. We all chatted with each other, stole code like pirates, and shared information on technology we used. Gaycams was a great place for that. The radio internet show I did with GayBC kept me going as well, pushing technology and seeing what else I could do with it was always something that made me get a “techo-boner,” and seeing others do it too. I could talk to folks watching my cam and reading my rambles, sharing my life, and with the later radio thing, they could share theirs with the talk show.
What do you think today’s “social media”-based internet?
Do I “like” it, “watch’ it,” “follow’ it?” I do. It’s an easy way to share information and to poke your nose into other peoples business. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s not. I’m glad I learned early from my personal website about posting personal information and what it could do to bite you in the ass. I’m not on Facebook that much personally, but have my network of friends that I like to post the baby/kitty pics to. With my work now, I do work with Facebook and Twitter marketing, so I get a little burned out on using it all the time. I do have a twitter account and enjoy mayorship of my neighborhood bus stop on foursquare. I like to check-in at Target when I’m there with the baby. It’s casual. I suppose the social networks are the next step in the on-going mutation of technology, and how we use the internet.
Previously: A Chat With Cockeyed’s Rob Cockerham
Mark Allen is a writer and performer living in New York. He has been on the internet way too long.