Who the heck is “Tammy”?
That thought ran through the minds of a lot of Web surfers last week, at least the ones who regularly check the Technorati Web site (www.technorati.com), the Internet equivalent of TV’s Nielsen ratings. According to the site, the top three subjects the blogosphere was buzzing about were “Tammy,” “ Tammy Download” and “Nyp Tammy.”
According to The Star (Malaysia), “Tammy” was a 17-year-old Singapore student who filmed herself having sex with her boyfriend on her videophone. The phone was lost — then found — by people who released the video onto the Internet.
“I have done nothing wrong,” “Tammy” told The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper. “I don’t know why people are making such a big fuss about it. Everyone does it [films video clips of themselves], even my friends.”
“It was just for fun ... we don’t intend to be porn stars,” she added.
Cases like “Tammy’s” may be extreme. Clearly, she never intended for that video to ever make it to the Internet. But the second part of her statement should make people take notice: more young people are snapping pictures and video of themselves on their camera phones... and not always in the best situations.
Those that post their camera phone snapshots online may not intend to become “porn stars,” but as law enforcement and the media have time and time again pointed out, that may be what they unwittingly become to online predators. This raises the question: are camera phones and the Internet a perfect match… or a perfect storm?
Moblogs on the move
As their quality has improved and their cost has fallen, camera phones have become increasingly popular, now making up about 40 percent of the wireless phone market, according to a report by communications research firm In-Stat/MDR. In 2005, International Data Corp. estimated that 7.5 billion camera phone pictures were taken, up from 4 billion the year before.
Accordingly, the number of services available to post cell phone photos and videos on the Web has also increased dramatically. “Moblogs,” or photo blogging sites such as TextAmerica (www.textamerica.com), Yafro (www.yafro.com) and Buzznet (www.Buzznet.com) all allow users to upload pictures online directly from their camera phones.
Rabble (www.Rabble.com), a service launched last year on Verizon mobile phones and expanded recently to Cingular customers, is a social network that lets users view pictures and profiles posted by people in their area and allows them to post their own content.
Text America is one of the oldest, and largest moblogs, with more than half a million users. Buzznet counts more than 200,000. The Rabble site currently shows 24,093 current users. While not yet as popular as text blogs, moblog sites have seen their registered members and page views skyrocket in the past year.
What makes these moblog sites so unique and appealing is the spontaneous quality of the often-grainy images, says Sarah Lane, host of G4TV’s “Attack of the Show,” who started up a moblog on TextAmerica in 2003. Since then, it’s become the most viewed moblog on the site.
"When I first got the phone, I found it was perfect for capturing weird things I came across," she says. "It's a way for people to look through your eyes."
Are moblogs safe?
“There’s no such thing as a safe Internet site,” says Chris Hoar, TextAmerica’s founder. “We encourage people to be careful, but we don’t want to limit freedom.”
TextAmerica user Cliff DeMartino and others founded the “TA Mafia,” which “polices the streets of TextAmerica to make sure things stay clean.” One of the things they do is “tag,” or mark, when a user is underage. “We call them Ille-GALS,” DeMartino says. “That warns people not to say or do anything that’s going to get them in trouble.”
DeMartino admits he’s regretted posting certain photos, but refuses to take them down. “I’ve sent a few pics that may or may not be alcohol induced. That’s part of the fun though.”
Looking through moblogs reveals — in addition to typical shots of family, friends and pets — fender-benders, passed out lushes, street performers, funny signs, celebrity sightings, and yes, those infamous late night drunken party pictures. Some of the top viewed Moblogs feature scantily clad women — although the three most popular Moblog sites listed above don’t show anything beyond what could be found in Maxim magazine.
Hoar says his moblogging site takes inappropriate pictures seriously. “We do not allow people to post pornography, if you want porn it’s all over the Web as it is.”
This is not the case for another large moblogging site, which you’ll have to find on your own, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Marc Brown, co-founder of Buzznet, says that while they have staff who look out for inappropriate material, “our community moderates itself.”
Even so, Lane says she has learned to be careful about the pictures she posts. “I try not to take pics of myself or personal situations,” she says. “You don’t really think about it, but people draw lots of details from what you put online.
DeMartino agrees. “Sexual predators can hide behind a computer,” he says. “Right now you have no idea if I am 30 or 60, black or white, male or female. Anyone can post pics and say they are the person in the pics. It's not hard to 'fake' a moblog. It happens all the time.”
Camera phone craziness
Whether or not camera phone users put their pictures on the Web, they can still get in trouble. "Tammy’s" case isn’t the only one where a cell phone image has caused embarrassment. Even celebrities are not immune.
When socialite Paris Hilton’s T-Mobile Sidekick II was famously hacked last year, her phone pictures were posted on the Web — pictures that included her posing topless (and lip-locked) with MTV Latin America VJ Eglantina Zingg. And early last month, World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon made the news after he allegedly tried to kiss and grope a 22-year-old tanning salon worker after showing her nude photos of himself on his camera phone.
Much has been said about the spy-like nature of camera phones. Many schools, businesses, restaurants and clubs expressly prohibit them.
“In my gym they have a sign, ‘No Camera Phones Allowed,’” Lane says. “It’s a weird modern sign that didn’t exist 5 years ago.”
In England, teens were arrested for “happy slapping,” beating random people and capturing it on their cells. Even down under, Australian police reported a rash of incidents where packs of motorists, in souped-up vehicles, video-phoned one another racing dangerously at high speeds, a practice Aussies call “hooning.”
A minor controversy in Japan centers around a new trend in which mourners use their camera phones to take pictures of the deceased. While the picture takers say they want to have a keepsake of their loved ones, others have accused it of being disrespectful — and just plain weird.
Of course, there are myriad examples of the benefits of camera phones. News organizations have begun relying on amateur footage shot by “citizen journalists” who happened upon the scene of a major news story. After the July 2005 London terrorist bombings, witnesses' camera phone pictures lent a gripping, first-person perspective to the news coverage.
Last year, a Queens, N.Y., schoolgirl used her camera phone to snap a shot of a man who flashed her on the subway. Police were able to identify the suspect and arrest him. A popular blog, Hollaback NYC (www.hollabacknyc.blogspot.com), specializes in posting women’s camera phone pictures of men who acted in an overtly disgusting or derogatory way toward them on the street.
“Camera phones allow you to easily document events in real time,” says Anthony Batt, Buzznet’s other co-founder.
Wave of the future?
Sony announced last week it would begin selling phones under its Cybershot brand name and with blogging and search tools from Google. It’s the first phone Sony has created with 3.2 megapixel picture quality — similar to a digital camera. As technology improves, some see the cell phone becoming a more multipurpose device.
“You don’t carry your laptop with you everywhere,” says Shawn Conahan, the creator of Rabble. “The one device everything should converge on is the mobile device.”
The ability to broadcast live video from camera phones will make things even more interesting — and harder to police, says Hoar. “At the end of the day though, parents need to be responsible.”
“Tammy” may have learned the negative side to having a video phone handy, but for many people, the camera phone, together with mobile blogging, provides a fun and useful way to capture and share those unexpected “Kodak” moments.
DeMartino sums up the moblogging trend this way. “When it's time to have fun we go wild. Mobloggers need to have fun bottom line.”
Adam Hunter is a freelance writer living in New York. His blog is www.sokpuppet.blogspot.com.
Correction: When first published, this article incorrectly identified The Straits Times as a Malaysian newspaper. It is based in Singapore.
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