Jennicam: The first woman to stream her life on the internet

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Jennicam compositeImage source, JKR

In 1996, 19-year-old Jennifer Ringley turned on a webcam that sat on top of the computer in her college dorm room. In that simple act, writes Aleks Krotoski, she changed the modern world.

It would be, at first glance, a perfectly innocent thing to do. But rather than use the cam to speak to friends and family back home in Harrisburg, Pennyslvania, she used it to do a most unusual thing: to broadcast herself live, to a globe of strangers, 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

In our social-media-strewn world of overshared snapchatting, this is not news.

The only remarkable thing a modern-day Facebook Live consumer might find about Jennicam, as it was called, would be how rubbish it was: one innocuous, grainy, still, black-and-white image on her website was replaced every 15 seconds by another innocuous, grainy, still, black-and-white image.

But it propelled Jennifer Ringley to unprecedented fame and laid the foundations for the conversations we have about the web today.

Webcams were a profoundly future-feeling technology then, during the era when you had to use a modem and a dial-up connection.

Websites took whole minutes to upload, each minute paid for one by one. And yet although Jennifer's stream of pics were usually of an empty room (she was at class, or in the loo), or of Jennifer looking at the computer, or sitting on the bed studying, or - in a fit of action, doing her laundry or brushing her teeth - this slideshow of the mundane was utterly compelling. Four million people - then a far greater proportion of internet users than it is today - would watch her quarter-minute updates of quotidian life.

Jennicam would now be construed as some kind of quirky performance art, a sideways comment on the hi-def version of modern life. The graininess, the black-and-white, the interminable 15-second wait between any possibility of action would all have been part of a deeply considered artistic manifesto published on Facebook. If anyone today happened to notice Jennicam floating in the ocean of contemporary livebloggers selling/testing/posing/unboxing/sexing, it would be a curiosity for approximately 45 seconds. Three updates tops. Then we'd get bored and move on to something a little more, well, alive. But at its peak, she literally crashed the web.

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Image source, JKR

Listen here to Aleks Krotoski discussing Jennicam on the Digital Human, on BBC Radio 4

To be fair, her most successful competitors at that time were a coffee pot cam (retired) and a fish tank cam (still active). There were other cam stars, like artist and musician Ana Voog, who used her full-colour slideshow to share everything from conception to birth. Voog's work and an experimental streak made her a natural to turn to digital space to play games with fans, and to interact with them in a way that today's 300 million monthly Twitter users would recognise immediately.

Image caption,
The world's first webcam featured a coffee pot at the University of Cambridge, which updated about three times a minute

But Jennifer was the original. She was desperately innocent in her approach, genuine and young, and most of the attention she received from outlets like the New York Times or The Late Show with David Letterman was characterised by an almost parental custody.

It wasn't until an infamous intimate night with her boyfriend that the tide began to turn from curiosity to condemnation. The accusations of narcissism and exhibitionism would be familiar to most reality TV competitors since the third series of Big Brother UK.

For Jennicam fans like the Reply All podcast's Alex Goldman, who interviewed her in 2014, Jennifer's appeal was her mundanity. People would tune in on a Saturday night while they were folding sheets, and see her doing her laundry too, and felt a comrade in arms. She was a real person, famous for being herself. Reality TV had not yet made us cynical.

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.

Because let's remind ourselves, this was before Pop Idol or its predecessor, Popstars - TV programmes that made people like you and me into household names. It predated Big Brother's Nasty Nick by three years. The only people looking at the everyday lives of normal folks were social scientists or peeping toms. We didn't buy things online, or read the news online, or fall in love online. The Web was still a curiosity, and here was a young woman who'd convinced tens of millions of people to log on. She was the online world's first real phenomenon.

Image source, JKR

She brought humanness into the computer age. I'm fascinated by Jennicam. In the past I've tried, unsuccessfully, to track Jennifer down.

Ringley shut off the cam in 2003, and disappeared completely. Even at the time, I was convinced that the juxtaposition between complete exposure and total radio silence surely was Jennifer making a statement about reclaiming herself, growing out of adolescence, and saying something profound about privacy in the media age.

Jennifer Ringley

  • Started Jennicam in 1996 while studying at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania
  • At its peak got seven million hits per day
  • Switched off in 2003
  • Now 40 and known by her married name, Jennifer Johnson
  • Works as a computer programmer in Sacramento, California

But as I've seen this digital world sprinting forward, I've witnessed waves of people shouting about the uniqueness of the current moment in time, arguing that technology is changing everything, that we've given ourselves over to the machines, or that we are narcissists and exhibitionists. (Jennifer was neither of these.)

How quickly we forget what it was like to grow up in a place that didn't feel quite right.

Adolescence is a time of huge personal social change, a moment when our selves fluctuate away from identifying with our parents and family to identifying with our friends and the world around us. A generation of men and women who have grown up since Jennifer turned her cam on, has had the unprecedented opportunity to find these friends online. And those who grew up before she did are still struggling to understand.

Jennifer Ringley's remarkable personal experiment - her public coming of age - 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. But the one thing that's rarely brought up is that she was just a kid who was learning who she was, forging an identity by forging new ground, and exploiting the means she had at her disposal.

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