As an experiment, the college student rigged her webcam to broadcast a snapshot of whatever she was doing at the moment every 15 minutes: browsing the internet, staring off into space, reading a book, masturbating. The extreme transparency—and possibility of co-ed nudity— was eminently clickable. She broadcast her daily life for whoever wanted to click, jumpstarting a DIY internet-based streaming concept that still has voyeuristic legs today.
Two years later, in 1998, Ringley was famous enough to appear on David Letterman, coming onstage after Samuel L. Jackson. Ringley was the star of a new screen: As Jennicam, she was the first celebrity lifecaster and cam girl. She graduated to uploading images more frequently and charging people (via PayPal) for premium access.
Then she unplugged. Jennicam went dark in 2003, following the disintegration of a contentious relationship, all captured on her web cam. Jenni slipped back into private life, and has no social media or anything by way of a (ugh) “personal brand.” At the time, she cited PayPal’s anti-nudity policy.
But the real reason had less to do with PayPal and more to do with burnout: After years of living publicly, she wanted to reclaim her life as a private person, especially after she got an onslaught of criticism for an on-screen affair.
Ringley talked to Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt from the Reply All podcast a few months ago about her trailblazing ‘90s digital presence, which got up to 7 million hits a day. “I had to develop a really thick skin, for both the good stuff and the bad stuff,” she explained, emphasizing how difficult the relentless, increasingly performative experiment could be as her fame grew.
Now, it’s not weird to turn on Ellen or Jimmy Kimmel and see an internet celebrity as a guest—never forget that the world’s preeminent wee egg-delinquent swag daemon, Justin Bieber, got his start on YouTube. But when Jennicam went mainstream, it was an almost radically new idea, an experiment in living life out in the open. There were a few different webcams that preceded her, including the Coffee Pot Cam , but Jennicam was the first to feature a real person, and so she was the first to experience the highs and lows of living in a camera-rigged fishbowl.
“This, to me, is like the perfect idea for the internet,” Letterman tells Ringley in their interview, right after he tells her he doesn’t really care about it. Letterman wasn’t wrong. Lifestreaming services like Meercat, Periscope, and YouNow are gaining traction. Mobile devices mean cam girls and boys aren’t confined to their dorm rooms. Even though she now avoids the internet-based lifestyle she helped pioneer, people haven’t lost interest in Ringley’s idea of living life online.