While on vacation in the States, I found myself watching the finale of “Survivor,” the climax of a summer of reality TV. I could have turned it off. I could have returned to my book. But no. I had been (blissfully) ignorant of all that had gone on before, but that didn’t matter. I watched both it and the roundup reunion in which the 16 participants recounted their experience on the island and their appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman.” To make matters worse, I found myself reading cover features about them in major magazines and browsing related Web sites. I didn’t want to, I knew it was bad for me, but I was transfixed — less by the participants and more by the bigger picture, an expansive tableau that includes the precedent of MTV’s “The Real World,” the concurrent “Big Brother” phenomenon and the whole Web-camera explosion.

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On the most obvious level, “Survivor” and “Big Brother” have succeeded by wiring our voyeuristic tendencies into the game-show formula. Beyond this, these shows have produced working models of interactive TV/Net entertainment. Their official Web sites consistently attracted heavy traffic — the U.K. ” Big Brother” site reportedly logged 10 million hits in one day. This is because viewers aren’t merely fans; they’re amateur psychologists and bookies, hungry for background, stats, feedback, etc. Ping-ponging between the tube and the computer, they are participating in a grand — detractors would say vulgar — social experiment.

This is especially true in the case of “Big Brother,” which not only invites viewers to play judge and jury, deciding who is banished and who wins the money, but also to view live 24/7 feeds of the house. Welcome to immersion TV. You’ll probably want to tune in to “Big Brother” Webfeeds in coming weeks since emotions are high. And if these don’t do it for you, you might try the sites of their somewhat racier European cousins.

The usual assortment of fan and parody sites is feeding the fire, not to mention ongoing analyses from established media. For the best overview and news updates, check out Realityblurred.com.

While the phenomenon began in Europe, Japan deserves points for spawning “Denpa Shonen,” a show which predated the current trend by a number of years. Granted, “Denpa Shonen” didn’t focus on ordinary citizens or utilize the 24/7 surveillance model, but it did effectively exploit the ambitions of would-be comedians and actors and turn them into globe-trotting backpackers and four-tatami mat apaato prisoners. We laughed (and pitied) their adversities, knowing that they wouldn’t dare back down from a ticket to the top.

Like “Denpa Shonen’s” goldfish, Jennifer Ringley of Jennicam and her many descendants are most likely inspired by a desire for fame, which, when viewed at certain angles, is just another word for exhibitionism. The majority of Webcam stars just want to be loved. In the process they’re getting quick educations in what flies and what doesn’t in Web entertainment.

Popular reality TV thrives on the pressure cooker of surveillance, competition and conflict. Ordinary Webcam operators can’t really replicate this, but they are free to do as they please. Rather than being taunted by exploitative producers, they run the show, for as long they please.

Just like the world of chat, Webcams are about the moment, true flux. Fans of particular Webcams create their own archives, but for many, the thrill is being there, seeing it live.

Much of Webcam world is about surveillance, both practical (weather, traffic, day-care centers) and absurdist (the coffee maker), but a large hunk is devoted to voyeurism, peepholes into “private” places. Some operators work it, baring all both mentally and physically; for others, it just comes with the territory. Pure voyeurism, however, directed at one target, can only last so long before it becomes an obsession akin to stalking. Likewise, reality, as displayed for the camera, can only be so “real”; art will always be revealed, even in the best cinema verite.

As the “Survivor” hype was beginning to escalate, visitor traffic was spiking atJennicam.org. Why? Because the girl had gone and purloined Dexter, the boyfriend of her best friend (who also just happened to have a Webcam of her own). The Jennicam community was rocked by the scandal. “Say it ain’t so, Jennifer!” But it was, and a veritable soap opera unfolded as Jennifer tossed out hints of her new sex life online, while (ex-) best friend Courtney publicly fumed next door. Cynics wondered if it was real or a manufactured bid for attention.

Jennifer’s drama took place on a stage smaller than that of “Big Brother” and “Survivor,” but ultimately the same nerves were being touched. Whether it was Jennifer stealing a best friend’s boy, or Nick Bateman lying to his housemates on the U.K.’s “Big Brother,” audiences hissed with the same indignation. How dare a fellow human being break our codes of decency and ethics — in broad daylight, no less? And yet they kept watching.

Reality TV producers obviously want codes to be broken. Otherwise, there’s only harmony, which, as the U.S. producers of “Big Brother” will tell you, doesn’t produce high ratings. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine successful Webcams/journals about perfectly pedestrian individuals having one great day after another.

Where do we go from here? Personally, I’d love to see bogus Webcam productions, of “War of the Worlds” proportions. Problem is, we’ve been almost everywhere, done almost everything. Then there’s the Web’s version of “The Running Man”: www.Realityrun.com, which negates the voyeurism factor while upping viewer participation.

And finally there’s Webcam communities, beehives of exhibition and voyeurism, such as SpotLife and Citizen X. They’re a sign of things to come, and admittedly a somewhat unsettling one. Looking at their grids of assorted faces and bodies, I was reminded of David Bowie as the alien in Nicolas Roeg’s movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” He had a similar setup which enabled him to view a dozen TV screens at once. He ended up catatonic. Makes you worry about Earthlings, doesn’t it?