Live streaming is fairly popular today, and with the launch of apps such as Meerkat and Periscope, “lifecasting” has become a thing. However, documenting everyday life and mundane activities online is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it was all started by a 19-year-old college student named Jennifer Ringley way back in 1996. She became famous for broadcasting her life 24/7 from her dorm room. At its peak, her website, Jennicam, got 7 million hits per day. As one of the most popular websites on the Internet, it received a significant portion of online traffic at that time.
As an experiment, 19-year-old Jennifer Ringley from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, started broadcasting her life on the Internet. She rigged the webcam on her computer to take photos every 15 minutes. The pictures would then be posted on her website called Jennicam. The slideshow gave the audience a peek into Jennifer’s everyday life. Sometimes she would be browsing the Internet or reading a book, and other times, she was found staring off into space or sleeping. The camera kept rolling and uploading pictures even when she was not in the room! Thus, Jennifer Ringley became the inventor of web-based “lifecasting.”
In her junior year at Dickinson College, Jennifer came across a webcam, a new technology at the time, at the college bookstore. After she brought it back to her dorm room, she felt clueless about what she would do with it. So, to test her programming abilities, Jennifer set up the camera in a way that it would take pictures of her room every 15 minutes. The camera was on 24 hours a day and seven days a week!
Though it began as a personal challenge, it quickly turned into an art project. Jennifer viewed her website as a document of her everyday life, and she wanted to present an authentic version of the same to her audience. That is why she never filtered anything, and nothing was off-limits. Sometimes the camera took photos of her while she was nude or engaging in sexual activities. However, unlike modern webcam services, Jennifer’s goal was not to make money by displaying erotic content. She was simply broadcasting her life as authentically as possible.
Jennicam became hugely popular and made Jennifer a famous Internet personality in a matter of two years. Her website received over 7 million hits every day, and she even appeared on David Letterman! However, if Jennicam were to exist today alongside Facebook Live and other similar features, all people would focus on would be the low production quality. The grainy, still, black-and-white images would not hold a candle to modern, live streaming. However, that does not mean we can ignore how it made lifecasting popular in the first place.
In that era of dial-up and modem connection, the webcam was a truly futuristic technology. Websites were not as fast as they are today, and they took over 60 seconds to upload. Though Jennicam mostly picked up shots of an empty room or Jennifer doing some mundane, everyday activity like brushing her teeth or doing laundry, it was utterly compelling to its audience, most of whom logged in either for voyeuristic pleasures or to observe the sociological implications of the content.
Today, most people would view Jennicam as quirky performance art. At best, it would be considered as a historical commentary on its high-definition and modern counterpart. The live streaming and blogging scene is almost saturated with people posing, unboxing, selling, or testing stuff. If anyone were to discover Jennicam in the ocean of similar websites or platforms, the curiosity and interest would possibly last 45 seconds. The site or its content may get three mentions or posts at best, and it would soon be replaced by something more “alive.”
At the time of launch, Jennicam had only two competitors – a fish-tank cam and a coffee-pot cam. After Jennifer started broadcasting her life around the clock, many other people tried to do the same, but none of them found the success or recognition she had as a pioneer “lifecaster.” When someone does something so extreme, they are sure to appear as eccentric or wild. However, despite her radical openness, Jennifer was surprisingly normal. Though she liked the attention she got, she was never hungry for fame. She was not particularly a “prude,” but when compared to exhibitionists, she was pretty tame.
After her website took off, Jennifer started offering “premium access” in exchange for a fee. Her “subscribers” would send money via PayPal. Jennicam kept running even when she moved to Washington D.C., and she garnered quite a following both online and offline. Over 100 media outlets including Modern Ferret and The Wall Street Journal ran features on her. Jennifer even appeared in a few television shows, the most notable of which was the Late Show with David Letterman. She also appeared on World News Tonight With Peter Jennings and The Today Show.
After successfully running the site for over seven years, Jennifer shut down her innovative site in 2003. At that time, she cited PayPal’s anti-nudity policy as the primary reason for the discontinuation. Some people even suspected that the end of a contentious relationship was the reason. However, in truth, Jennifer wanted to reclaim her private life after living in the public eye for nearly a decade. She disappeared completely from the Internet until a recent interview with Digg.
From total exposure to radio silence, the stark juxtaposition between these two lifestyle choices may have been Jennifer’s way of reclaiming herself. Today, 40-year-old Jennifer is a married woman and a computer programmer living in Sacramento, California.