This month in tech history: April - JenniCam

On 3 April 1996, 19-year-old student Jennifer Kaye Ringley installed a webcam in her Pennsylvania dorm room, and rigged it to broadcast a still photo of whatever she was doing at that moment, every 15 minutes. And so, lifecasting was born.

Today of course, in the always-on era of Periscope, Facebook, Instagram and the like, lifecasting is not just accepted, but almost expected, and certainly hugely popular, but it all started 20 years ago, with JenniCam.

JenniCam was one of the first web sites that continuously presented someone’s private life. The first webcam streamed only black-and-white images of her in the dorm room, but as her popularity grew, Ringley increased the number of webcams to four, they became colour, and the refresh rate increased. Ringley also began offering a ‘premium’ service, charging members $15 a year to get two-minute updates, alongside the free “JenniCam Guests”, who had to settle for updates every 20 minutes.

At its peak, JenniCam was one of the most popular websites on the internet, receiving seven millions hits a day. While that might not seem like much today, as Nate Lanxon of CNET says, “remember this is 1996 and the Web as we know it now had barely lost its virginity, let alone given birth to the God-child we know as the modern Internet”.

Throughout the seven years and eight months that the site was live, Ringley maintained that she didn’t get a kick out of having people watch her undress, and to be fair, the site wasn’t pornographic – although she didn’t seem shy of masturbating or having sex on screen. Ringley was of course criticised during the site’s run by several conservative groups, with some feminists condemning her for “exploiting the female body for fun and profit”. But as Ringley herself said in an interview in March 1999:

“You can come to my site for days and never once catch me naked. I'm very aware that sex sells. If I were trying to make money I would certainly do more things to make people come to the site.”

Not surprisingly, security was a problem. Early on in JenniCam’s existence, the site was hacked, with the hackers (teen pranksters as it turned out) demanding that she “show more” in her strip shows. Ringley also received death threats. “I didn't leave my room for three days; I kept all the blinds closed,” Ringley admitted after the incident. “I was scared out of my mind. Now I have an unlisted phone and address, and I have security at the front desk of my apartment.”

In 2000, Ringley began a relationship with ‘Dex’, formerly of Dex and Courtney, after moving to Sacramento. Courtney, another webcam-er, was a close friend of Ringley, and the media, and Ringley’s fans, were outraged.  “I will no longer support someone who is so evil as to humiliate a friend in such a public way,” was one of the more polite comments written in the JenniCam Fan Forum section of Peeping Moe, a site that caters to “the discriminating voyeur”.

Some say this was the beginning of the end for JenniCam, although the site continued for another three years, eventually shutting down on December 31, 2003. At the time, Ringley cited PayPal’s anti-nudity policy as the reason, but in interviews since, it seems that the years of living so publicly had taken their toll.

In a December 2014 podcast, Reply All remarked that now Ringley “is almost entirely absent from the Internet ... just the way she likes it”.


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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Editor of IDG Connect

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