Is she then virtual? No, her extended
nature encompasses both domains.
Some pictures may not be really intended;
still, her networking mastery’s plain.
—Howard A. Landman, JenniCam superfan
In 1998, Leo Hindery, one of the country’s most prominent cable news executives, flew to Denver, Colorado to speak at a conference for the Roman Catholic church. The internet is corrupting the fiber of our country, he complained. The impropriety of cyberspace was “perhaps the greatest threat to morality and decency we face today.”
The middle-aged Hindery, who at the time was said to be worth $70 million and regularly ran DC’s lobbying circuit, could have pointed to endless blasphemous material from debauched corners of the late-‘90s web. But he chose as his target the webcam of a 21-year-old woman named Jennifer Ringley, through which she broadcast the banal details of her life, 24 hours a day.
Three years since going live, JenniCam was drawing up to half a million hits a week from around the globe. European fans had created a program to track whether she was in the room or not without even visiting her site. New York’s young professionals kept Jenny in the corner of their browsers during office hours, in the background like a droning radio. Fans corresponded with her in a chat room hosted on JenniCam. One wrote a 14-chapter sonnet in her honor, each set of verses paired with a screenshot of one of Jenny’s more intimate (or distinctly pornographic) moments.
This was post-Real World, pre-Big Brother America, and consumer technology didn’t quite support true live-streaming yet. Still JenniCam.com eventually inspired hundreds of people to follow her example, uploading their lives to the internet in real time, in crude, 15- to 30-second increments. At the time it needled at the core values of a more private world.
JenniCam’s popularity demonstrated “a profound need for a reinforced relationship with young people,” Hinderly told the conference. “It may sound pathetic, but people actually relate to Jenny.”
Reached for comment by the Washington Post shortly after, the unassuming strawberry blonde known to alternately don tiny slips and sweatpants on camera, offered only: “I’m going to guess that my assessment of me is more accurate than his.”
“Men were generally always ready to cast us as drama queens.”
Two decades later, Jenny is ensconced in internet lore as the first lifecaster, an icon of the endlessly streaming, confessional mode of communication that much to the dismay of people like Hinderly would deeply embed itself in future generations. Scholars from across sociological disciplines cite her as one of the first cases of cyborg feminism, an early self-branded celebrity, and a precursor to internet sexuality. The creator of The Truman Show contacted her to consult on his script. For publicly being a woman, even in the early days of the internet, she was the victim of death threats and trolls. The press cycled between referring to her as a “good girl” and a “red-headed minx.”
Today, as documented in a 2014 episode of Reply All, the now-middle-aged Jenny is difficult to find. She eschews social media and seems to want to be left alone. Multiple requests to interview her went unanswered. But some of the other women she inspired, with whom she chatted and partied and swapped technical advice, the ones who usually only make brief cameos in this particular legend, wanted to talk.
They too were on the front lines of a culture we now take for granted—mocked and leered at for giving the public a direct line to their lives. Most of the stories told about JenniCam focus on the mystery of her final log-off in 2014 and her subsequent disappearance from public life, a cautionary tale about a woman who bared too much of herself, too soon. And if the other lifecasters are mentioned at all today, it’s usually in reference to their darkest moments: the suicide attempt caught on camera, the messy failed relationships, the sometimes crude and imperfect exposures of their private lives. A surprising number of them now live quietly in remote locations.
When I started to contact them, they insisted on tightly controlling their exposure. One only consented to corresponding over email, since every time she’s spoken on the phone with a journalist, she says, they’ve gotten her all wrong. Another, as a condition to be interviewed, requested in writing that I wouldn’t publish certain widely-shared photos of her along with my article—it took her years to get her life together after they hit the internet, she said. And then they offered long rebuttals to the discrepancies between their experiences and their legacies.
“Men were generally always ready to cast us as drama queens,” wrote one.
Jenny’s favorite metaphor for what she did was a nature show: the Discovery channel, trained on her dorm room. As she explained to Dave Letterman at the height of her celebrity, you can turn on a TV and see all kinds of animals doing their thing—how strange that when there’s a person on camera it’s considered “sick and perverse.”
Courtney, whose site went live in 1998 (and who only gave me her first name because she prefers to keep her old life separate from the new) tells me it was more like sitting on your front porch in a small town: “People walk by, they see what you’re wearing. Maybe the next day they’ll stop and say hi.” For Stacy Pershall of Atomcam, it was about being on the cutting edge of using technology as art. Ana Voog, who gave birth to two children in front of a live audience, tells me streaming her life for 12 years was a “feminist statement.”
“We understood what we were doing,” says Courtney, who now lives so far up in the mountains of Northern California her phone connection drops out every 20 seconds or so. “We knew the reach, and the impact, we were having.”
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The whole thing progressed the way most new technologies do, going from from a narrow-minded utilitarian experiment to a form of entertainment to a network staple (and a concurrent, sprawling erotic industry)—all in the space of a couple years.
In 1991, a pair of lazy engineers at Cambridge University’s Computer Lab, tired of walking down the hall only to find the coffee pot empty, set up CoffeeCam, writing a script to upload snapshots to a web browser every 30 seconds or so. In 1994, the year the first commercial webcams appeared on the market, one of Netscape’s programmers trained his on a fish tank and dubbed it FishCam.
Less than two years later, a junior at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, a self-described nerd, went out and bought a cutting-edge piece of technology for herself. The problem, once she’d spent a good chunk of money on the bulky hardware, was figuring out what to do with it. So at 19 Jenny wrote a script that took a grainy, black-and-white image of her dorm room every half-minute and posted it directly online—unoriginally, she called her choppy, automatically refreshing slideshow JenniCam.
The broadcast link circulated around her family and tech-savvy friends back home; her mom used it to check up on her. When an Australian newspaper found the link and wrote her up, it crashed her site. Almost immediately Jenny’s internet provider called, telling her she’d exceeded the available bandwidth.
There is a certain posturing, familiar to us now in the era of the forward-facing camera, that must have been jarring in ’98.
There is a certain reflexive posturing, familiar to us now in the era of the forward-facing camera, that must have been jarring in ’98—the studied casualness a person adopts watching themselves being watched. It’s there even in the early stills from the JenniCam, which are eerie, pixelated X Files-era shots of Jenny’s tiny dorm room: Jenny asleep at an odd angle, Jenny getting ready to go out, Jenny splayed out on her bed masturbating, Jenny posing in a bra, Jenny chatting with friends on IRC in the dark.
When, decades later, an interviewer asked her the extent to which she was performing, she said she wouldn’t deny “there’s a certain insecurity that goes along with being 19.” There’s also no denying that many who watched her were waiting for those moment her banal and geeky day-to-day activities were interrupted by sex. The first time she brought a boy back to her room, she didn’t turn off the camera—it just seemed like too much effort, she would later say, and her commitment to the real, uncensored, graphic truth was absolute. At least one boy didn’t come back to her room after that, but the traffic to her site exploded. Fans put out alerts on JenniCam forums when her clothes were off. (Years later, with a regular boyfriend, she might demurely turn the lights off.)
At the height of her fame she ran the talk show circuit and had a cameo as a thinly fictionalized version of herself on a crime procedural. Her face appeared in Cosmo and Time. She answered the same questions over and over again: Why would you do this? We can really see you naked? What about your privacy, your family, your dad? Jenny insisted her experiment wasn’t about sex or voyeurism (though today the tag “JenniCam” is still used to bring traffic to porn sites). More than anything, she told Letterman, she just thought people didn’t like to be alone.
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“I was technically the seventh lifecaster,” says Ana Voog, “but I was the first to consider it art.” The lead singer of a pop-rock band in Minneapolis, Ana was on her second major label in 1997 and fighting Sony over control over her image; JenniCam gave her a template for full artistic independence. And Ana wasn’t the only one: Around the time Jenny graduated from college and moved to DC, the webcasting phenomenon had inspired a number of women to embark on similar projects.
AnaCam favored trippy filters and odd camera angles, which she broadcast to an audience of 7 million in the ‘90s. For Ana, having sex on camera was part of the appeal—she wanted to show people something more real than what what she was seeing in most porn. She’s go at it with her partner, take a break to order a pizza, then go for another round. “It was so important that the sex was real, authentic,” she says.
“The cam community was amazing back then. We were all kinds of misfits.”
Fans of the various lifecasters discussed them on forums like Peeping Moe, a bulletin board for the “discriminating voyeur.” There were men who broadcast their lives too: Justin of Justin.tv would become the most famous, in 2007. But the women were the most visible, their alliances to each other more overt.
There was JodieZone and Courtney’s Latitude 11, mostly safe-for-work windows into the lives of their domain owners. DanniCam was conceptualized by a former exotic dancer and mixed the JenniCam aesthetic with something more intentionally pornographic. Around 1999, Stacy Pershall of Atomcam was working in the electronic art department at the City University of New York, where she found a copy of Yahoo! Internet Life magazine with Ana on the cover. She found it “mesmerizing” that such a thing was possible, and then purchased surveillance cameras at the Spy Shop.
“The cam community was amazing back then,” Ana says. “We were all kinds of misfits.” Some of the women would chat on a daily basis, IMing and drawing cute web cartoons on each others’ webcam pictures. Most kept detailed LiveJournals in which they wrote about their job prospects, their car troubles, their loves unrequited or reciprocated.
Some commentators lurking in their chat rooms and forums deemed the girls lonely or salacious, but for many of them the impetus to cast was about the fascinating power they had to move pixels around. They traded tips on cameras and refresh rates. Courtney liked to talk to the other lifecasting women about software and bandwidth—she was in Northern California in 1998, after all, right when “the internet was really in its infancy.”
Since Courtney had been a frequent poster in a number of AOL groups and IRC chatrooms, the cam just felt like an extension of her other online lives. “It was exciting to meet all these people—and so much easier, just turning on my camera,” she says. In the three years she webcasted, she says she would sometimes get up to 10,000 uniques a day, most of them English-speaking, from all over the world.
Being publicly female came with a toll in the ‘90s, just as it does today. Jenny told CNN in 2001 that at her peak she got about 700 emails a day, a fifth of which told her she was too fat and ugly to be on-camera. Ana received so many death threats she was afraid to leave the house. Stacy remembers men commenting on how “unfuckable” she was. One troll, Daign, mocked all of them mercilessly, making a GIF of Stacy crying when her cat died. And Courtney says her webcam blew apart her family of hardcore Christians: “They felt that it was shameful for me to be opening my life for strangers in this way.”
“They felt that it was shameful for me to be opening my life for strangers in this way.”
The friendship between some of the female lifecasters bled out from their browsers and into their physical lives. Courtney and her then-fiance, Dax, would host other lifecasters in their San Diego home, including Jodi from JodiZone, who acted as some of lifecasters’ “business managers.” (By this time some webcasters, like Jenny, had begun to charge a modest subscription fee of $15 a month or so to pay for the site’s maintenance.) When Courtney drove across the country in the late ‘90s, she stayed with some people she’d met through her chat room and forum.
Around 2000, television networks and porn sites alike, eager to capitalize on the lifecasting trend, started setting up houses where cameras surveilled their characters 24 hours a day. Jenny and Ana were invited to speak on a panel for an early video-conference startup. They broadcast their own cams from the comped hotel room, laughing and drinking wine. Some of the people asking them questions were government workers making missile-defense systems, Ana says: “It was crazy!” Courtney recalls being so well-known she sent out a resume for a job in Silicon Valley and immediately got an email back: “Oh, are you that Courtney?”
And then a few things happened—the kinds of sudden, overwhelming disintegrations of our lives’ foundations that happen to all of us. If we’re lucky they happen behind closed doors. But when your life is live-streamed, the feedback loop already in motion between yourself and your fans, you don’t have much of a choice.
Courtney helped Jenny move to Sacramento, finding her a house across the street from hers and driving her from Washington, D.C. Not long after, Jenny slept with Dax, and he left Courtney to shack up with Jenny—all of which, obviously, happened on camera. Jenny and Dax received so much hate mail it scared Courtney a little bit—nowadays she says it was “taken out of proportion to the situation”—while she got a stream of emails from people who’d been spurned by lovers in the same way.
“I’ve watched this train wreck for over two years and enjoyed it,” wrote one commenter on a JenniCam forum. “I will no longer support someone who is so evil as to humiliate a friend in such a public way.”
The same year, Stacy, later diagnosed as bipolar, attempted suicide on camera. It was only because one of her web-casting friends knew her address that the ambulance came on time. With her short hair and body art she’d already been referred to as a “tattooed trucker dyke” by numerous trolls, but screenshots of her lying on the floor, surrounded by pill bottles, blazed across the internet, infinitely remixed. She made me promise not to publish them.
“I will no longer support someone who is so evil as to humiliate a friend in such a public way.”
Stacy and Courtney shut off their webcams that year; Jenny would persevere awhile longer before she shut off her webcam on New Year’s Eve of 2003. The relationship with Dax increased traffic to her site by about 40%, but the romance didn’t last—later, she said she kept it up too long, in part because of the guilt. And in part because of the perception of her fans.
Ana says a number of those relationships fractured after that. Today Stacy works as a suicide prevention advocate. Courtney owns a dispensary in Northern California, mostly using the internet for campaigns to legalize medical marijuana. Ana, by far the most visible, has a robust network of private social media channels now. If you subscribe to her Patreon for $5 a month, you get full access.
Despite weathering the now-familiar burdens of sexualized obsession and anonymous bullying, these women are mildly nostalgic for the web they inhabited, the internet’s vast and algorithm-less freakshow. And they’re aware some of the vitriol they came up against may have just been because they were too much, a few years too soon.
“Maybe it’s more common now because of social media, but we were bringing those privacy walls down,” Courtney says. “And when they did come down, they would come crashing.” And sometimes, there would be rubble.