Backstory: Look, Mom, it's me. I'm OK!
Web cams at Cornell and other schools give eager parents a glimpse of their kids.
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Though hundreds of campuses have Web cams, the number with close-up views remains small, largely because of questions about their public-relations value and the potential for abuse. "If there are guys out there mooning people or something crazy, and some parent is on there [watching], that's the last thing you want," says Mr. Carson.Skip to next paragraph
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Cornell officials report no hitches beyond the sort that might have made its late alumnus, Allen Funt, creator of "Candid Camera," smile: unsuspecting students shoveling food into their mouths, for instance. "If you watch the 'Hi, Mom!' view long enough, you'll see people doing things you wouldn't want to ... do when the whole world is watching," says Lisa Cameron-Norfleet, the liaison between the Cornell administration and the school's Web developers.
Still, officials here and at other schools brush aside questions about privacy, saying the areas in the camera's eye are in very public parts of campus and the video feeds are not recorded.
At Cornell, the "Hi Mom!" view went online in April, a few months after the university replaced an older, stationary camera. The new system had more bells and whistles, but took in a narrower view, unleashing a flood of e-mails. Carrie Sanzone, who oversees the camera, says feedback split into three camps: alumni who clamored for the original postcard-perfect view of McGraw Tower; campus staff who wanted an eye over Cayuga Lake, to know what to wear at lunch; and parents who confessed to scanning the ant-sized figures on Ho Plaza for signs of their kids.
Ms. Sanzone thought that if that many people wanted to see their children, maybe the school should accommodate them. This spring she programmed the camera so users could choose between three settings: McGraw Tower (with sky and lake), Ho Plaza, and "Hi, Mom!" Web visitors get control of the camera for 30 seconds at a time.
"The self-interest is, of course, we want to show the campus off," says Tommy Bruce, vice president of university communications. "And if we can add this additional nice thing, which is to allow parents a wink and nod [from their kids], then that's worth it."
The school doesn't track use of the "Hi, Mom!" setting, but says its Web cam page gets 50,000 to 60,000 views a month – making it one of the most visited pages on the university's website.
Early evidence suggests the "Hi Mom!" view is a bigger hit with Mom than her offspring. "It's for her sake," Dan Hutchison says of his once-a-week cameos, usually during a break between classes. "I have no interest in standing in Ho Plaza for too long. So it's me going 'Uh huh, uh huh, OK, OK, OK, bye, Mom.' "
On a recent afternoon, after Econ 313, Melinda Mathis, a sophomore from Bethesda, Md., stood between the benches outside the campus store, called her mom at work, and waved at the camera, which is enclosed in a protective orb atop a six-story tower. They talked about the weather (still warm), the home computer's wireless router (still balky), and the game of laser tag with Grandma planned for winter break (still on).
When the camera first went up, Ms. Mathis says, her mother would "randomly call" to check if she was near it. "My mom said, 'Every time you go back to the campus store, you need to call! You need to call!' Um, I did not call her every time I went to the campus store."
To judge from the e-mails to Cornell's webmaster, however, anything is better than nothing. "I love the 'Hi, Mom' camera," one mother wrote. "It's just wonderful. Even if my son has only gone there once the whole semester."