TIMELINE of the JenniCam (1996 to 2003)
Jennifer Ringley started the JenniCam on April 14, 1996 when she was 19 years old in her Junior year of college. She set up a webcam that could only take black and white pictures in her dorm room at Dickson College in Pennsylvania. The webpage would refresh to a new screenshot of herself every three minutes automatically. Ringley shared with the world on an interview for The Late Show with David Letterman in 1998 that she got this whole idea from The Amazing FishCam (http://www.fishcam.com/), an online livestream of tropical fish swimming in a tank. Set up in 1994, it was the second live camera on the World Wide Web and still runs today. Ringley thought it would be more interesting if a person was featured instead, and she took it upon herself to be the person living in a fishbowl under the watch of others. In this first year, she performed stripteases on webcam in her dorm room, but stopped when hackers threatened her privately to expose more of herself.
In May of 1997, Ringley graduated from college and moved to Washington, D.C. She took her move as an opportunity to add 3 more webcams to cover her newly larger living space. She also started to charge a fee for “premium access” on her site, meaning that paying users had images refreshing more frequently than people accessing the site for free. The main reason for Ringley’s decision to start charging a fee is because her site costs around $3,000 to run per month due to high bandwidth usage and legal services and she wanted to cover those costs. However, her site was doing so well that she could sustain living at home under the claim that she was a “web designer”. At the height of her popularity, she had 10 million visitors on JenniCam.org weekly.
The Next Move
When Ringley decided to moved to Sacramento California, she allowed free live streaming and audio for her process of packing up her apartment. It was around this time when she was involved with a man named Dex, who was the fiancé of another webcammer. Since Dex helped her move to California, he was frequently featured on the JenniCam and their sexual activities were also documented. Many fans suddenly turned on Ringley and began criticizing her for her actions.
Ringley ended the JenniCam on December 31st, 2003. She said that the main reason for terminating her site was because of Penpal’s new anti-nudity policy. After that day, she disappeared off of the internet and did not reply to any emails from the many fans who tried to reach out to her to get answers and see how she’s doing. Since she bought the jennicam.org domain until 2009, many people were hopeful that she was just going through a phase and would soon return back on her webcam. Ringley later made a comment about the new change in her life – “I really am enjoying my privacy now. I don’t have a web page; I don’t have a MySpace page. It’s a completely different feeling, and I think I’m enjoying it.”
In total, the JenniCam lasted 7 years and 8 months.
While some viewers went on the site for sexual arousal purposes, others considered Ringley an exhibitionist and the JenniCam as “one of the most influential and longest running piece of improvised endurance theatre.” In the 90s, there was an abundance of performance artists who were desperately trying to find a way to integrate their practice with the upcoming technological advancements including the introduction of the World Wide Web. In the end, all it took was a girl documenting her everyday life through the lens of a webcam that gained popularity and recognition. In the interview with Letterman, Ringley recalls a comment made by a fan saying that seeing her do laundry on a Friday night makes him feel like less of a loser because he knows that she is a popular girl but still spends some of her nights alone as well. It then becomes of interest how people enjoy watching others live their lives rather than living their own. Beyond the comforting reason that seeing others do relatable activities makes one feel less alone, people found entertainment in watching Ringley sit in front of a screen. When she started charging a fee, a business opportunity began to arise and television companies quickly caught on. The JenniCam influenced the beginning of the reality television genre, with shows such as Big Brother, Survivor and The Surreal Life gaining popularity rapidly. Ringley herself is considered by many as the inventor of reality television. While these shows are edited into episodes, Big Brother After Dark replicates the essence of JenniCam where people pay money to have access to a channel that shows what is happening in the house 24 hours/7 days a week.
While most screenshots on the internet of the JenniCam are of her topless or naked, that was only a small portion of what was shown on the site. Most of the time, she was just eating, drinking, sleeping and surfing the internet (in which you could not see what was actually on her screen). In addition, when we discussed her life, she often shared the romantic aspect of it more than just her sex life and mostly, she would only have sex with the boyfriend she would have at the time. However, since it was in 1996, “the Web as we know it now had barely lost its virginity” making her actions seem taboo and risque.
I am personally on the side that sees the JenniCam as a piece of theatre. While others may choose to focus and criticize her for “performing” sexual activities and masturbating online, she had dedicated herself to presenting her entire life online which naturally includes times when she is naked. In addition, the JenniCam connected human beings with the internet both through viewers and also through presenting a human life on this medium. It opened up a whole window of possibilities and proved that there is expanding potential with the World Wide Web. As for the people who criticized, threatened and bashed Ringley for her actions – I think they should take a minute to ask themselves why they were so interested. Ringley knew her purpose for her actions, but do we?