Some four months ago, in the third week of October, Adam Jackson, 22, steadied his web cam near the window of his apartment, which loomed over a seedy corner of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. From its perch, the camera live-cast all the bizarre events you’d expect from the infamous neighborhood — fights, car jackings and robberies, to name a few. And the web site Adam’s Block was born. While a number of other similar sites existed, Adam’s Block gained an unprecedented following. But in December, only two months following its launch — after national media descended on the site and its popularity surged to as many as 15,000 visitors a day — the social media self-starter shut his site down.
Sure, the traffic had grown to over a million people in just the month of December. But along with the popularity came serious threats against his life, both in person and otherwise. People opposed the idea of street-corner surveillance; others were upset when Jackson stymied their attempts to advertise their own sites with banners in the background. Turns out, though, that the site’s not fully out of commission yet. In fact, recently, Jackson turned heads by putting ads on this Twitter account to raise money for charity. VentureBeat chatted over the phone with Jackson, who was in his San Francisco office, to see what he’s been up to and to hear future plans for Adam’s Block.
VentureBeat: What made you start the project in the first place?
Adam Jackson: I’m actually from a quiet beach town in Florida, and I moved to San Francisco. The area in which I was living is mostly ridden with crime and has a lot of homeless people. It was really noisy [when I tried] to sleep at night. So, I thought, I’ll put this camera up so my friends can see what it’s like to live here and to hear what I hear at night. They were humble beginnings.
VB: Did you expect the site would be that popular?
AJ: I didn’t really think it would be that popular. When I first started, there were maybe 30 people watching. But then it grew really fast. By Dec. 1, when the site went on national media, there were about 400 people watching at any given time. I shut the site down on Dec. 16.
VB: Of your visitors, how many were supportive and how many were haters?
AJ: I would say about 10 percent of them were negative. And I wasn’t getting just emails. It was a lot of in-person, face-to-face and over-the-phone threats. It was 3 a.m. knocking-on-my-door kind of things. Being transparent in this Web 2.0 world and going mainstream, you have to rethink everything. The problem was the chat room. People were going in and making remarks [that reflected badly on the site as a whole]. I got some people blaming me for being racist or blaming the homeless.
VB: What do you mean by rethink?
AJ: From this point forward, in the next generation of the project, all the domains will be private, and the owner of Adam’s Block will not have any personal information up. Everything is a lot more private. That’s the way it has to be. There’s a reason why police officers’ phone numbers are not listed in the phone book. You don’t want to arrest someone and give them your home address. I never intended the project to get so big. And that’s where the fault was. I had been used to the negativity. But it was finally for my safety and my girlfriend’s safety that we kind of shut things down to take a break.
VB: What was the tipping point for you?
AJ: The last day I took the camera down, I had been on NPR in the morning. The night before, my girlfriend was walking home and someone was following her with a video camera. She was telling them, “Leave me alone.” It was 11 at night, and she was by herself. The person following her was saying, “You need to shut it down, we’re going to rob you, kill your boyfriend.” It scared her so much that she told me we can’t do this anymore.
So I took everything down. I gave all the money I had raised for funding growth to charity. And I held a fundraiser for a local charity [called Glide] that weekend by putting a link on the site. I think I went out in a good, positive light.
VB: What kept you on until then, considering these face-to-face threats?
AJ: Politically, there were a lot of people behind me. I thought it was enough that, with these threats, the city would take care of me. The last week of doing the project, the sheriff and police officers were coming by and checking our house regularly. Then again, taking that chance was a lot for a project that didn’t make any money.
I still want it to continue. So I let a friend of mine form the East Bay take over the project. I explained to him my whole business plan. I had to move to a [new apartment] last-minute and change my cell phone number. I was getting death threats at all hours.
VB: If you did it over again, what would you do differently?
AJ: I think if I were to do it over again, I wouldn’t do it again. But if I did, certainly I would consider some of the privacy concerns and be a heck of a lot more private. Even putting the camera in my room, I’d make it more hidden. My lifestyle wasn’t really set up to fight crime with my transparency at that time. I think that if I were more private on the web, like now, I could have actually finished the project.
[During the project,] I transitioned from a Web 2.0 person to a mainstream person. Simple things we take for granted just being in the tech scene, like having my phone number on my blog and my Facebook totally open, in addition to my Twitter stream and Flickr stream. I would check [those sites], and there would be a post of someone saying, you live here! And being a Web 2.0 person [at first], I didn’t really consider that to be a threat. If you were mainstream, like Billy Joel, that’s what would happen. People would ask you for an autograph or maul you. So I kind of locked down my social internet life. It was the most challenging part, going from a very public to a very private lifestyle. It’s like being robbed of my life and having to start over.
The thing is, there are hundreds of web cams run by private citizens in San Francisco. And I run into people who say, I’ve done the same thing for 10 years, and I never got that many people. A lot of them were jealous. But when I started, I just thought it would be a web cam — not a monetized service.
VB: Did this help or hurt your career?
AJ: I can say that at the end of it, there was no advantage or disadvantage, and neither was my intention. In my day job — I do marketing for startups — I do live streaming and web casts online. I’m working on a book on Twitter. So none of it was really affected that much.
VB: What’s next for the project?
AJ: One of my friends has taken over the project, though I’m still involved. I just want to make sure [the web site] is still charitable and still run with the right intentions. I told him my plan for Adam’s Block, and he may have his own objectives. I wanted to have a web cam on every street corner in America, globally. I wanted to buy web cams and have broadcasters all over — a neighborhood watch on a global level. In return, I’d get a portion of the advertising. I encourage all broadcasts to give at least half to local charities, to give back to the communities they’re in. All of my proceeds so far, which were just about $1,000, went to local and national charities. All the equipment went to charity. That has always been my goal with this. Never to make a lot of money [for myself]. We partner with a couple of organizations that run the web site. It’s a public records site. They can index public records, or show crime in certain areas by Google map. We [could] give a web cam link to all these areas. It’s a really low investment thing because all you need is the cameras.
As far as viewer involvement goes… I had moderators, and if [they] saw something going on, they would call the police. The police would get 35 to 50 calls over something people saw on the web cam — stuff like stealing cars or getting beat up. If something bad was happening, people were actually reporting the crimes. There were 30 or so crimes recorded on camera, and most of them were reported to the police. Police told me that crime went down significantly in that area. But when I walked a block away, I noticed the same things were still happening, just in a different area.
VB: Does that mean that the camera just displaced crime? Or did it actually help lower the crime rate?
AJ: I envision it like deforestation. If you think of all the animals in a 20-acre area, [the area] gets smaller and smaller as the trees disappear. The population eventually decreases. If you pick an area of town and flood it with cams, it could be the same thing with crime. I had people who would email their address and say, “How can I help?” It would have been an easy job. The only thing was, I just couldn’t buy 200 web cams.
VB: So what does the project look like now?
AJ: The guy who’s doing it now has $15,000 in investment just to get started, to get a web developer and to cover legal fees. He’s already got sign-ups [for people who want to host a camera], and he’s going to contact everyone who’s applied. I have a few more people right now who are still broadcasting in San Francisco [people who wanted to join the project but weren’t incorporated before it was shut down]. And they’re just waiting for things to get set up [with the new iteration of the site]. They’ve committed to a year of running their broadcast. I’m working on the business plan, and we just have to get enough money to do web development and legal work.
VB: You moved to a new apartment. How’s your new block?
AJ: It’s just as bad. I’m still in the same area, just a few blocks away. While I was working one day, there were two guys yelling. One guy stabbed the other, and I called the police.
VB: Ah, the old-fashioned way.