You're an animal on a Web cam.
If any zoo or botanical garden or nature center has its hands on your e-mail address, you've probably been invited recently to view its Web cam. This isn't as NSFW a proposition as most invitations to view live Web cams, but is instead an offer to intimately view an animal, usually a bird with eggs about to hatch, from the comfort of your home or (if you're lucky) your office. This — spring — is prime nature Web cam season.
My invitation came from Duke Farms — the sprawling former estate of tobacco heiress Doris Duke in central New Jersey that is today a nonprofit environmental center. "BREAKING NEWS," an e-mailed newsletter alerted me. "The Eagle Cam is back on the air! Don't miss this opportunity to watch a pair of Bald Eagles raise a new family this nesting season."
I bit. Duke Farms' eagle cam turns out to be a fairly good example of your standard animal Web cam. The page you land on has, yes, the Web cam, but also information about bald eagles ("Eaglets grow rapidly, adding a full pound of body weight every four or five days"), a timeline of the current season with screenshots of what you've missed ("March 15: Parents with two eggs in the nest"), and highlights from last year's season ("The oldest eaglet fledged...").
Click play and the live stream starts. You'll most likely see an eagle in its nest. The camera is mounted in the same tree; depending on how hard the wind is blowing, this is either soothing or nauseating in a seasick kind of way as the background and foreground constantly shift against one another. Watching the video feed as I write this, the eagle is moving some sticks with her mouth. Now she's rotating a bit. Now she looks like she's scratching her underside with her beak. Nature is an awe-inspiring thing, but I guess not 24/7.
But the Web cam can interest in another way: its explicitness as a Web cam. I may be alone at my desk, but I'm not alone in this connection with the eagle: Two-hundred and fifty-six other people are watching, too, a stat at the bottom of the screen tells me. The tiny screen is full of other non-natural information: "Ch 1" in the upper-left corner; "P 210 T:56" and "REC" in the lower-left; the date and "AM1 1:47:42" in the lower-right; and the name of the streaming service provider — USTREAM LIVE" in the upper-right.
Of course live video streaming service doesn't grow on trees, which is why advertisements pop up across the bottom of the screen and cover the nests' lower third. I've seen two on the Duke Farms' cam. Both reflect that common problem of online life in which a computer algorithm recognizes I'm looking an eagle's nest, and then thinks I'm "Paying Too Much For US Gold Eagles" or am looking for the bestselling swallow nest soup in the U.S. Would that the Web knew I was interested in eagles the animals (and not for their nests), and instead pitched me a birding guide, or new binoculars, or an eagle calendar.
It's hardly a surprise that as the technology behind Web cams improved — becoming cheaper and better suited to outdoor conditions — the devices would be turned to animals. As content, they're far different from, say, the genital parade of a site like Chatroulette. But as a communication tool, the field of animal cams turns out to be a lot like like the larger Web cam world: there are a lot of them, and most of the time, nothing happens. Watching the San Diego Zoo's Polar Cam right now, I see no polar bear. The water's bubbling, and a giant pink ball floats around, but there is no bear.
Most Web cam sites try to mitigate the boredom by including highlights, as Duke Farms does. When I visited the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's stream of a Barn Owl in Texas, I watched the owl sleep. Interesting — for a few seconds. But photo highlights preserve the more compelling moments I missed, such as February 18: "It seems the owls have started mating. Luckily, Flyhi was quick on the draw as copulation only lasts for 10 to 20 seconds, which is relatively long for a bird." Or March 19: "The male brought in a large meal for the female, thus prompting a mating session." Cornell goes one step further in trying to engage viewers. It's created an online system through which volunteers can tag and sort screenshots (For example: Does an image show just eggs, or two adults?). Other sites, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium's penguin cam, advertise public feeding times when you can sign on and be guaranteed to see something happen.
I find the Web cams fascinating in a way that has nothing to do with what's going on in any particular stream. These cameras are completely discordant from all the other work zoos and aquariums and nature centers — and even nature books and films and television — do in connecting the public with animals. A Web cam affords no opportunity to move to another area of an exhibit to try and better see the San Diego polar bear. A Web cam doesn't guarantee that you'll see the eagle feed its chicks: a cached "highlight" photo may, but that's exactly the kind of selectivity the Web cam opposes.
When it comes to animals, so much goes into shaping an experience that suggests you are having a personal, direct connection with nature; there's a lot time, labor, and intellectual effort involved in creating naturalistic zoo habitats, filming and editing nature documentaries, and collecting the most dramatic images of eagle into calendar form.
In contrast, a Web cam can seem a pretty poor way to experience animals — a 21st-century laziness that grants technology even greater reach. There's initially something a bit off to a comment in Duke Farms' newsletter explaining the cam's late start: "Damage to the equipment in January caused a delay of several weeks in the launch of this year's Eagle Cam season, however, the camera is on, the picture quality is improved, and there are two eggs in the nest!" The Web cam's technical concerns can seem so at odds with the natural object it's capturing. We've come to assume that the kinds of things associated with its use — energy, computers, poor image quality, climate-controlled settings lit with buzzing fluorescent tubes — to be incompatible with those things we associate with an appreciation of nature — silence, an absence of technology, beautiful images, the outdoors. But that's exactly what makes them so compelling. When a Web cam superimposes "P 210 T:56" over live video of an eagle's nest, the birds naturalness seems striped away. But it's sometimes useful for us to recognize our own role in looking at animals. What other mediated way of viewing animals so explicitly acknowledges its mediating nature and the limitations that come with it?
Zoo habitats are fake; national parks have boundaries; and nature documentaries are selective, small fragments of the greater footage collected in the field — when they're successful, you never really think about these facts. But in reality, most of nature is boring and not that picturesque. And almost all our access to it is referred by man in some way. Kudos to Web cams for saying so, even when they're broken. Maybe especially when they're broken. • 26 March 2010
Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.