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?
Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
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.
ALEX GOLDMAN: In April of 1996, 19-year-old Jennifer Ringley started a website called Jennicam. The site was just a stream still images from a webcam in her dorm room. Every 15 minutes a new black and white photo would upload. Jenny at her computer studying. Jenny, coming back from the kitchen with a snack, Jenny asleep under a comforter. Jenny 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 it wasn’t just Letterman. 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.
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: First of all, let me say thank you for doing this. I really appreciate it. There’s no reason that you should, necessarily. But I do appreciate it.
JENNIFER JOHNSON: 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 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. Yeah, she was like the original stalker. She would call me on Saturday morning and say “I see you’re still in bed and you need to wake up.” I was like “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 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, 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 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. 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 the Jennicam. 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 is on her bed in thigh high boots, so she is going out. Jenni is in a tank top and sweatpants in front of her computer, so she was 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 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. No one wanted to be on it, nobody wanted to come into my room.
ALEX: Even though the nudity was 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, was that something you thought about when you set it up?
JENNIFER: I think I decided that it was gonna be even more of a pain 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, that I can’t — 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 — I didn’t want it to be disruptive like that, for me.
ALEX: Was there any part of you that felt like 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: I’m not gonna lie, 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 insecurity that goes along with being 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. 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 kind of 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 a while she felt really paid off.
JENNIFER: I was in my dorm room Saturday night doing laundry. 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 cuz 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 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 I don’t care anymore.”
JENNIFER: I was glad to hear that somehow I gave somebody permission to just be themselves and to be ok with that.
ALEX: After college, Jenni moved to Washington DC 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 DC, there would have been one in the office, probably two in the office, one in the kitchen, one in the living room, one in the bedroom. And there was one in the bathroom but it did not point at the toilet. That was where I drew the line.
ALEX: At its peak, her site got seven million hits a day, which back in the late 90’s, brought Jenni a lot of attention. There was a Jennicam IRC channel, 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 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…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 you can see wild America and you can see 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.
LETTERMAN: I don’t know about that exactly.
JENNIFER: The whole thing was such a blur. 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 VOGT: So…sorry, I feel like…
ALEX: This stammering ninny is my cohost, PJ Vogt.
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, but he was messing with you.
JENNIFER: Yeah, no, he was making a joke that he’d seen, I guess that was the joke, that they were downloading my stereo, not that they were stealing it. That they were online downloading…this was 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. 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: 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 camgirl 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. A fellow cam girl 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 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 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.
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 is when that relationship did start failing. Which 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 because — 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: at that point I was gonna be gone from the house for 9 hrs a day and sleeping another 8 hrs a day. Life started slowing down for me, too. You get into a routine. I’m not 21, I’m not flailing, 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. On December 31st, Jennicam went dark. She backed up her images and journal entries to some zipdisks, and threw all of it, the cameras, the backups, everything that had to do with Jennicam, in a box that lives somewhere in her garage now.
PJ: I feel like you had this 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. 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: Yes please! You are like an oracle of the internet.
JENNIFER: That’s scary, because 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 dangers 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.
ALEX: 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 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 they’re are, 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 ungooglable.
JENNIFER: My husband’s last name is Johnson and Jennifer Johnson is practically better than Jane Doe. 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 a deal.” And they’re like “well that doesn’t sound like a big deal to me.”
ALEX: Jennifer johnson nee 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.
ALEX: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. Our producer is Lina Misitzis. We were edited this week by Starlee Kine, Alex Blumberg and Kaitlin Roberts. Matt Lieber steers the ship. Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. If you want to see six things that I wanted so badly to keep in the story but I had to cut, you can find them on our website: replyall.limo. We’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram–you know, all over the place, all over the internet–just look. You can also sign up for our newsletter on our website. PJ writes it and I, actually, have nothing to do with it, so even I enjoy receiving it every week. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another episode. Thanks for listening.