In 1996, Jennifer Ringley, a junior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania stumbled upon a new piece of technology at her college bookstore – a webcam – and came up with this radical idea to broadcast how she lived her life for seven years which updates an image every 15 minutes on a website. She shared every uncensored detail of her life, in what she called a “virtual human zoo”. As the project flourished, she also added more webcams and charging for access to her site, allowing both paid and free access with the paid access updating the images more frequently than the free access. (wait but I thought she didn’t originally want to charge viewers according to “Jennicam’s Jenni on Letterman’s Late Show“?)
Then it all went downhill when she stolen the fiancé of a friend, Pamela Courtney who was a fellow cam-girl as well. The drama continued with bouts of “love” and sex on Jenni’s side and bouts of depression on Courtney’s site. Fans eventually stopped supporting Jenni and some people even judged her harshly. In 2013, she went completely off the grid since then.
In my opinion, Jennicam seems to be a curious and innocent experiment that went wrong. Also, what started as a purposeful even somewhat turned contradictory?
But first of all, why/how did she manage to do it for so long, over a span of 7 years? What are the appeals?
“I keep JenniCam alive not because I want to be watched, but because I simply don’t mind being watched. It is more than a bit fascinating to me as an experiment. So feel free to watch, or not, as you so desire. I am not here to be loved or hated, I am here simply to be me.”
She aims to portray only the real life, uncensored and unedited, even if that means giving up all of her personal privacy.
She carried out her life, from the mundane to more exciting ones, over a span of seven years entirely and wholly broadcasted for all the world to view as they please. I guess this appealed to large masses of people because of how relatable it could be and it was almost like viewing humanness into the computer age. This helped with people who were lonely and desperate for a form of companionship where on one Saturday night while she was doing laundry at home, she got an email saying it had made someone feel like less of a “loser”. She could connect with viewers because it was relatable and humans somehow just thrives in trying to find like-minded people. Its similar to how celebrities, especially in the case of Korean pop idols to be keep their fans in the loop by broadcasting their mundane activities too. Humans in generally are just inclined to learn about others, their stories and their lives. There is just a unexplainable attraction.
At that time, it was a radically new idea. Something people have never heard, seen before ever on the internet. Humans being curious beings as well might have been swayed to check what all the hype for this was about.
I think this was one of the elements that played a large part. Aside from her daily chores she can also be shown nude or engaging in sexual behaviour, including sexual intercourse and masturbation. People was anticipating what would happen next. I guess it was also human nature to tend to be voyeuristic. I won’t say all the viewers that tune in are anticipating for this kind of action but i think its mainly a split between this and people trying to find connection with others who relates to their life.
A strong community grew in the chatroom on her site, where she also hung out. She was accessible, part of the gang, a friend. How surprising for her audience of new web recruits, who had probably never experienced this kind of connection with someone they’d only ever met online. And probably for Jennifer herself, too.
As the saying goes, communication is key, humans bond and thrive only with communication. I think with the chatroom is kinda reduces a layer of wall between her and everyone else. Even in our current times, many people can be great friends or even “soulmates” just be talking to each other virtually without having to meet up.
Through this project, she opened up discussions as to what is privacy and what it encompasses, a question that we are still asking ourselves till this day. What can be defined as privacy? In our day and age, we’re all similarly surrendering our personal life and details both voluntarily and involuntarily. I found it interesting how Jenni herself was aware that she would never be able to completely remove herself from the web even if she wanted to but still proceeded on with this project head-on.
This also raises the question what can is considered suitable or acceptable content? Also another question that we are still debated ourselves. From nudity to sex to publicly humiliating and betraying a friend, do we have to be mindful of the message that we are disseminating to others and how our attentions would affect others?
I also found it interesting how Jenni felt the weight of responsibility for her to try harder and she felt that she had to really go out of her way to make it happen so she’s not just going to give up. Was a need for recognition?
The internet can be a wonderful place but also a scary one. People might find solace but also harsh backlash and judgements. In the case of Jennicam, she experienced both the joy of fame and recognition but also the wrath when a line was crossed. For example, she was called a “homewrecker”, a self-obsessed “vixen” and a “phoney”. Even the The Washington Post called her an “amoral man trapper”.
Another interesting point was how she stopped performing stripteases for the webcam after she was discovered by a group of hackers on Efnet who teased her for their own amusement. After she reacted humorously to their taunts, she was hacked and even received death threats. The hackers turned out to be approximately 100 people including a handful of teen pranksters, but Ringley did no more stripteases after that.
In conclusion, her personal experiment inspired the first conversations about the things we’re still talking about now: digital over-sharing, the value of online expression, and the meaning of online community.
It’s interesting how after years of living publicly, she wanted to reclaim her life as a private person, especially after she got an onslaught of criticism for an on-screen affair.
“Life started slowing down for me,” she says now. “You get into a routine. I’m not 21, I’m not flailing, I’m not making laughable mistakes every five minutes like you do when you’re younger. It’s a little more boring.”
But then I thought the whole purpose was to portray REAL life or was it all for the fame and drama?