#5.5 Jennicam Revisited

April 29, 2015

In 1996, 19-year-old Jennifer Ringley started the JenniCam, a 24-hour online chronicle of her life. Seven years later, she disappeared entirely from the internet. But why?

Also, PJ and Alex discuss how even in the past five months, the landscape of “lifecasting” has changed. And PJ puts Alex on Meerkat and he gets very uncomfortable.

Don’t forget! Tomorrow is Email Debt Forgiveness Day! Leave us a voicemail at (917) 475-6668 about your most anxiety inducing unanswered email. We will post a special mini-episode that is Email Debt Forgiveness Day-themed this weekend.

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Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Further Reading:

Alex has been so obsessed with this story for so long that he wrote a blog post of supplementary material that he couldn’t actually fit into the episode.

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Show transcript

PJ VOGT: Hey guys, so we are releasing this episode on Wednesday, April 29th, which means that Email Debt Forgiveness Day is tomorrow, April 30th. Email Debt Forgiveness Day of course is that real, official holiday, where you can send someone an email that you meant to send them before but got too emotionally tangled up to send them. You’re allowed to send them an email as if no time has passed. You just include a link to the explanation of Email Debt Forgiveness Day, which we have on our website, replyall.limo. And if you do end up sending an email, or if you receive an email, please call us and leave a message at 917-475-668.

This week’s episode is a re-run because we’re working on something pretty special for next week, but we’re also going to put out some sort of like, quick, short bonus episode this weekend that will be Email Debt Forgiveness Day-related.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So, the thing about doing a podcast about the internet is that the internet is changing all the time. It is a…

PJ: Even right now, somebody just wrote a new webpage.

ALEX: (laughs) What’s it about?

PJ: Sports.

ALEX: Huh, that is eminently believable.

PJ: Also like the technologies behind the internet, and the way people use the internet machine all the time. It’s very fascinating. We do a podcast about it. So we did this story, back in December, about Jenni Ringley. Alex, you did this story.

ALEX: I did.

PJ: And the idea was that she was possibly the person to ever stream a video of her life, 24 hours a day, on the internet. And when we ran that story, one of the points we made was that, in a lot of ways, what she was doing in 1996 was predicting the way a lot of us would use the internet in December 2014. It’s, what, I can’t do math, 6 months later?

ALEX: (laughing) Definitely not. December…

PJ: Who can tell time?

ALEX: It’s four months later.

PJ: It’s four months later now. What has happened in those intervening months is that, two of the sort of most, rapidly popular apps that people are using, Periscope and Meerkat, are both apps that make it incredibly easy to use your phone to immediately start livestreaming video. So you can take a moment from you life and you can broadcast it to whoever might want to watch.

ALEX: I found using Periscope for like 30 seconds crazy informative as to how difficult Jenni’s life must have been.

PJ: Wait why?

ALEX: Because, because, the moment I flipped on the camera, strangers were hounding me to do awful things.

PJ: What were they saying?

ALEX: Find a dog and kick it.

PJ: Really!?

ALEX: Take a dollar from a stranger. What they wanted to see was not the mundanity of my life. They wanted to see mayhem.

PJ: Um, I am right now broadcasting you on Meerkat.

ALEX: Wassup y’all?!

PJ: Cool. Zero people are watching.

ALEX: Yeah. So far. Did you tweet it?

PJ: Oh! Two people are watching.

ALEX: And what are they saying?

PJ: They’re not saying anything.

ALEX: I’m eager/terrified. I hate people…

PJ: Three people are watching. I’m watching you get less comfortable.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Oh! Four people are here. (laughs) How bad do you feel right now?

ALEX: Pretty bad.

PJ: What’s your anxiety level one to ten?

ALEX: Six.

PJ: What’s your anxiety level when you get a parking ticket?

ALEX: Four.

PJ: You sort of have to put up with this because we need to record a top. If I just followed you around and did this to you, how quickly would you freak out and actually be mad at me?

ALEX: Ten minutes. Maybe.

PJ: You mean probably less.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Oh! Ten people are here now. Um, so this week, we are rebroadcasting a story about somebody who decided to live-broadcast every moment of her life, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for… many years, before that was like a normal, app-assisted way to do things.

ALEX: In April of 1996, 19-year-old Jennifer Ringley started a website called JenniCam. The site was just a stream of still images from a webcam in her dorm room. Every 15 minutes a new black and white photo would upload — Jenni at her computer studying, Jenni coming back from the kitchen with a snack, Jenni asleep under a comforter, Jenni on the phone — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Today, this seems utterly mundane and pointless. But back in 1996, it was revolutionary.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Our next guest is the creator of the very popular JenniCam website which televises the life inside her apartment 24 hours a day, live on the internet. Please welcome JenniCam’s own Jenni!

ALEX: This is David Letterman in 1998, interviewing Jennifer Ringley about about JenniCam. And this was just one of many media appearances she made. She was featured in newspapers and magazines. She had a cameo on a network drama. For seven years, she was the subject of endless online discussion, debate, and analysis. And then one day, she disappeared. I know this because for the better part of a year, I’ve been trying to find her.

[THEME]

ALEX: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, a show about the internet. I’m Alex Goldman.

ALEX: Even I’m not entirely sure why I’m so obsessed with JenniCam. I knew about it back in the 90’s, but I didn’t really watch it. But as someone spends almost all his time online these days, Jenni started to seem like someone who might have special insight. Someone who’s already gone through what we’re all going through today. She was one of the first people to live her life in public, she was one of the first people to become a celebrity simply because she was on camera, she was one of the first people to share her most intimate and vulnerable moments with complete strangers online. So why, after living so publicly, did she vanish so completely?

ALEX: So, first of all, let me say thank you for doing this. I really appreciate it. (laughs) There’s no reason that you should, necessarily. But I do appreciate it.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: (laughing) I don’t even know why I picked up the phone, I usually don’t.

ALEX: After months of dead ends — inactive phone numbers and emails, contemporaries saying that they had no idea where she was, or worse, saying “I think I know where she is, but she’ll never talk to you” — When I finally got in touch with Jenni, she wasn’t standoffish or mean, or even particularly mad I had found her. Honestly, she was mostly curious if her mom had given me her number.

ALEX: Why did you think it was your mom who had given me your phone number?

JENNIFER: She’s done that in the past. They’re, they’re still fully listed in the phone book and everything, and I was hoping that she hadn’t done that again. My mom was always one of my biggest fans. She was like the original stalker. So, yeah, he would call me on Saturday morning and say “I see you’re still in bed and you need to wake up.” I’m like, mom “Mom, it’s six o’clock.”

ALEX: Jenni and I ended up talking for about three hours, during which she told me the whole story. It all began back in 1996. At the time Jennifer Ringley was a junior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, she stumbled upon a new piece of technology at her college bookstore. A webcam.

JENNIFER: I was a computer nerd. I’ve always been a computer nerd. And I had to have one. I pretty quickly realized I didn’t have anything to do with it, and I had just spent, you know, a good chunk of money at the bookstore on this camera. So, it was basically a programming challenge to myself to see if I could set up the script that would take the pictures, upload them to this site — just to get that happening automatically, and I shared it with a couple of friends, like kinda “look, I got this working.” And I thought it was kind of neat.

ALEX: In the beginning, it was just her and those computer nerd friends. But then those friends shared with their friends, and they shared with their friends and at some point, the press began sniffing around.

JENNIFER: Somebody at a newspaper in Australia heard about it and wrote an article about it, and, um, pretty immediately things went crazy. I got a call from my ISP that I owed them several hundred dollars for bandwidth charges and I’d have to move my site, and… it… it was not something I had definitely prepared for.

ALEX: Looking at JenniCam as an internet user in 2014, it’s kinda hard to see the appeal. But there was something magnetic about watching it. It was easy to sit there and stare at the screen, anticipating the next picture, another link in a chain that could be assembled into a narrative. Jenni’s on her bed in thigh-high boots, so she’s going out. Jenni is in a tank top and sweatpants in front of her computer, so she’s staying home and chatting on IRC. Jenni and a guy are laying next to one another in bed, so they will fall asleep reading, or will end up having sex. This, of course, the possibility of witnessing nudity or sex, was also a huge part of the appeal. Maybe it would happen in the next image. Or the next image. Or the next.

JENNIFER: The first time one boyfriend and I did started kissing, the site went down pretty much immediately from (laughing) too much load. And then of course I hear the computer beeping and look over. And once he realizes that just kissing has overloaded the site, he didn’t come back into my room again. Nobody wanted to be on it, nobody wanted to come into my room.

ALEX: Even though the nudity was like, almost incidental, just by the fact that people were so excited by the fact that you were kissing on camera they crashed your website, there was a sexual undertone, I guess I would say, to what you’re doing. And was that something you thought about when you set it up?

JENNIFER: I think I decided that it was gonna be more of a pain to have to turn the camera around when I was gonna get changed, it was gonna be more of a pain to have to cover it up when something was gonna be happening, that if I really wanted to be able to ignore the cameras as much as I wanted to, that they just had to keep running. If, if I’m kissing my boyfriend, I’m gonna stop that to walk to over to the other side of the room, no, that’s not a (laughing) — I didn’t want it to be disruptive like that, for me.

ALEX: Was there any part of you that felt that it was empowering, or was excited by it? Was there any part of you that felt this is a part of this I actually enjoy, or was it just another part of this experiment?

JENNIFER: Um, I’m not gonna lie, there were, there were certainly a couple of times I would check myself out and like put on something and look in the mirror in a dorm room I didn’t have a big mirror, so I’d do it in the camera, prance around the room. I’m not gonna deny that there’s a certain amount of, you know, insecurity that goes along with being, you know, 19-years-old. It’s natural to be seeking approval. But I also tried to not listen too hard to the feedback that was either really good or really bad.

ALEX: So why exactly was she doing this? We’ve come to expect that when someone does something this extreme, it’s the result of something extreme in their personality. And what’s confusing about Jenni is that she’s confoundingly normal. She enjoyed the attention, sure, but she wasn’t desperate for fame. She wasn’t a prude, exactly, but as exhibitionists go, she was pretty mild. She wasn’t in it for the money – she actually refused plenty of opportunities for banner ads or product placement. It kinda seemed like once it started, she just needed to see what would happen next. It sort became a mission, this experiment in radical openness. A mission that every once in awhile she felt really paid off.

JENNIFER: I was in my dorm room Saturday night doing laundry. I was not… you know, I was a nerd! And I got an email from someone who said “I’m doing laundry too and I just looked and saw that you’re doing laundry on saturday night. It’s funny ‘cause I felt like a loser. I’m sitting at home doing laundry on Saturday night, but I saw you are too! So now I don’t feel so bad.” And, and that kind of just did it for me.

ALEX: That was the turning point where you were like “Welp — I’m helping someone because I’m doing laundry and they’re doing laundry at the same time, I don’t care anymore.”

JENNIFER: It was just like, I was glad to hear that somehow I gave somebody permission to just be themselves and to be okay with that.

ALEX: After college, Jenni moved to Washington, D.C., and got a job doing web design. Going from a dorm room to an apartment, she suddenly had a lot more space to document. A JenniCam superfan gave her a bunch of webcams his work was throwing out, and she wired her new home.

JENNIFER: When I lived in D.C., there would have been one in the office, probably two in the office, one in the kitchen, one in the living room, you know, one in the bedroom. And there was one in the bathroom but it did not point at the toilet. That, that, that… that was, that was where I drew the line.

ALEX: At its peak, her site got seven million hits a day, which back in the late ‘90s, brought Jenni a lot of attention. There was a JenniCam IRC channel. There was a website dedicated just to pictures of her feet. There were articles about her in The Wall Street Journal, Salon… Modern Ferret magazine. She was a guest on This American Life, made a cameo appearance on Diagnosis Murder, a late-90s detective show starring Dick Van Dyke. And of course, the arbiter of a late 90’s celebrity — David Letterman.

DAVID LETTERMAN: This will replace television, as we know it now. This will replace television because this is really all people want … they just, people are lonely and desperate. They’re lonely, desperate, miserable human beings and they’re reaching out, they want to see life somewhere else taking place. It’s comforting, don’t you think?

JENNIFER: I think the thing is that if you turn on the TV, you can see wild America and you can watch lions and badgers and antelope eating and sleeping and doing what they do, but for some reason wanting to see people doing the same thing is sick and perverse.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Well, I don’t know about that exactly.

JENNIFER: The whole thing was such a blur. But what always stands out to me is when I was walking out to the stage, Samuel L. Jackson was coming off of the stage. And I can’t believe he even stopped to acknowledge me, but he looked right at me, and he said “I just checked out your site and I saw some thieves downloading your stereo.”

PJ: When you just said that I thought that you were saying that he actually did catch people in the act of stealing things from your house…

ALEX: That’s my co-host, PJ Vogt. We talked to Jenni together.

PJ: But he was messing with you.

JENNIFER: Yeah, no, he was making a joke that he’d seen, I guess that was the joke, was that they were downloading my stereo, not that they were stealing it.

PJ: Oh that’s! (laughs)

JENNIFER: That they were online downloading… this was like 2000! It was…people would talk about the world wide web like it was magic.

PJ: That’s not a bad joke for Samuel L. Jackson to make in 2000 about the internet.

ALEX: Yeah, that’s pretty sharp.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Alright, well, good for you. I think it’s, I… like I said before, I think that this is the best idea I’ve heard for that silly internet thing.

JENNIFER: Thank you!

DAVID LETTERMAN: Yeah, nice meeting you. Thank you very much! It’s Jenni.

ALEX: By 2000, Jenni had spawned imitators: Anacam, Amandacam, Izzicam. A new term entered the lexicon to describe them — camgirl. And the beginning of the end for JenniCam came when she got caught up in a cam girl scandal.

Jenni asked me not to use the names of the people involved. But it was the spring of 2000, Jenni had just moved to Sacramento, and a fellow cam girl who was out there helped her find a place. And then, a few months, Jenni slept with this cam girl’s fiance. On camera.

JENNIFER: I thought we fell in love. I really at that time — I felt like I had just met my soulmate. “How could you judge this? You don’t know because you’re not having these feelings!”

ALEX: That’s the kind of story you hear a million times in your lifetime: A friend who hooked up with someone else’s boyfriend or girlfriend and there’s this, sort of, tiny drama. For you, it didn’t only happen on camera, but it happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and everyone decided to take sides. I mean —

JENNIFER: Yeah, and I don’t blame them. It’s one of those things that from the outside it’s so obvious.

ALEX: Cam forums erupted with vitriol. And the outrage wasn’t confined to the internet. The Washington Post which called her a “red-headed little minx” and an “amoral man trapper.” The Washington Post. Jenni and the former fiance moved in together. And as you can probably imagine, her new relationship didn’t flourish under that kind of scrutiny.

JENNIFER: I think what really bit the most was, of course, when that relationship did start failing. Which, you know, was almost as soon as anybody could have predicted. But I do think I ended up staying in that relationship for a lot longer than I would have just because I felt like — like I really, really went out of my way to make this happen, so I’m not just going to give up. So, I definitely thought there was more of a weight of responsibility on me to try harder just because I had apparently made a HUGE mistake.

ALEX: Suddenly, Jenni’s experiment in radical, unvarnished openness became a performance. The performance of a relationship she wasn’t happy in, because to give it up would have just been too great, too public a failure. And then, Jenni did something anathema to recording your life 24/7. She got a day job.

JENNIFER: And at that point I was gonna be gone from the house for, you know, 9 hours a day and sleeping another 8 hours a day. Life started slowing down for me, too. You get into a routine. I’m not 21, I’m not flailing, (laughing) I’m not making laughable mistakes every 5 minutes like you do when you’re younger, I guess. It’s a little more boring.

ALEX: Viewer interest in the site began to wane. In late 2003, Jenni announced that she was shutting it down. And on December 31st, JenniCam went dark. She backed up her images and journal entries to some zip disks, and threw all of it, the cameras, the backups, everything that had to do with JenniCam, into a box that lives somewhere in her garage now.

PJ: I feel like you had this like, unique position of doing this thing before it was commonplace. And then you stopped and you’ve gone very, very far in the other direction. Like — I’m curious if you feel like you saw something bad that we all rushed into and missed?

JENNIFER: Do I have any warnings looking back?

PJ: Yeah!

ALEX: Yes please!

PJ: You are like an oracle of, um, the internet.

JENNIFER: That’s scary, because I’m, I’m, I’m not — I’m not especially wise.

PJ: That’s exactly what an oracle would say.

ALEX: Jenni rejected our attempts to make her anything other than what she was, a person who’d done this one thing, for very specific reasons. But she did say one thing, that I couldn’t help but take as a warning from one who knows, about the danger of living in public the way we do now. She knows that the internet will always overreact to whatever it decides to shine a line on, heaping both praise and scorn at levels much greater than deserved.

JENNIFER: I was exhausted at the end. I was exhausted.

ALEX: Why, why were you exhausted?

JENNIFER: I had to develop a pretty thick skin, for both the good stuff and the bad stuff. There are people that I wanna be able to connect with. I don’t wanna distrust every stranger. I (laughing) don’t want every good thing or bad thing to make me feel defensive or proud. It became almost too thick of a skin.

ALEX: At the time Jenni stashed her webcams in her garage, Myspace was six months old. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no YouTube. And now that those exist, Jenni’s one of the few people who stays off of them completely. In fact, she’s almost absent from the internet. There are a few pictures of her floating around, and there’s a Wikipedia article about JenniCam, but the hundreds of thousands of images and journal entries she posted to her site, those are mostly gone. The Jenni of 2014 is basically un-Googleable.

JENNIFER: My husband’s last name is Johnson and, uh, Jennifer Johnson is practically better than Jane Doe. So, I never thought I would get married. I never thought I would get married. But when I did, I was super eager to take his last name. SUPER. EAGER.

ALEX: Occasionally, she does let it slip in the real world that she used to be JenniCam. And she says when she does, people mostly don’t get it.

JENNIFER: They’re like “yeah, so what big deal.” I’m like “well, you know it kinda was … I’m not gonna say it was a big deal, but it was kind of a deal.” And they’re like “I don’t know, that doesn’t sound like a big deal to me.”

ALEX: Jennifer Johnson, née Ringley, is still a programmer, and still in Sacramento. To find out more about her, you can’t follow her on Twitter or Instagram. In fact, if you want to know more about her, you’re pretty much out of luck. Which is exactly the way she wants it.

[CREDITS]

ALEX: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Lina Misitzis, and edited by Alex Blumberg.

Matt Lieber is a nap in a hammock.

Our show was mixed this week by Rick Kwan.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at iTunes.com/replyall. Our website is replyall.limo, which was designed in partnership with Athletics.

We’re going to be back at you with an awesome, amazing, super-exciting new episode next week. Thank you for listening. You are the best.

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