What is so exciting about an unmade bed? And not just one unmade bed but thousands across the globe sitting in empty rooms alongside empty chairs and the tattered remains of last nights parties. These are some of the sights that have become addictive to the many people who regularly view 24 hour live Webcam sites on the Net.
Often there is a woman sitting on a chair in front of a monitor. She is as engrossed as you, her eyes glazed in mesmerized attention. RL (Real Life) no longer exists for either of you as you have both passed into a virtual dimension. Because time as we know it does not exist in this constructed void/oasis you are as lost in space as she is. And yet you are not looking at the same thing because she’s not looking at you, she cannot see you. You are the visitor and she is allowing you access.
However, you have the technology to make her aware. If she were to allow it you could CHAT with her on IRC, you could post her a message on her bulletin board, or you could send her an email. If you are lucky and she reads it she may reply or she may even wave at you across infinity - she may even smile.
Over the last three years of the last millennium there has been a proliferation of the phenomenon of personal Webcams; digital cameras that have been set up by women on the internet. My focus in this article is specifically on 24 hour/ 7 day Real Life cams which record the lives of the women who have positioned them in their living rooms, bedrooms and offices uploading continuous images of their creator’s lives. These ‘Camgirls’ often maintain a diary or journal page as part of their Website which accompanies the Webcam images.; The most well known (reputed to be the first) ‘Camgirl’ is JenniCam:
“JenniCam takes a page from Andy Warhol’s pop-culture statements about celebrity and image. Jenni’s site makes an interesting statement about the voyeurism and exhibitionism that we’ve come to associate with the Net. For a medium that’s been criticized for undermining social interaction, sites like Jenni’s are redefining those interactions and our sense of public and private space - In their banality, these sites are offering us a new and unfamiliar aesthetic - one that is, like all interesting art, visually fascinating, disconcertingly erotic and a provocative reflection of ourselves.” (Firth,1998)
Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam created her initial Webcam site on April 14th, 1996, uploading images of herself every three minutes from her dorm-room in Dickenson College Pennsylvania. She was motivated to set up her cam after seeing a Webcam called The Amazing Fish Cam which was pointed at an aquarium in the offices of Netscape. Four years later her site, now located in her apartment in Washington D.C., gets 4.5 million hits a day and has transformed Ringley into a Net Star: one of a small elite number of Webcam girls who have attained a level of fame on the Net which has not yet become apparent in the Offline world.
My interest in these sites lies in the fact that Webcams are attractive because they offer women strong elements of risk yet at the same time, elements of safety. They address the desire for a freedom of discourse that the Net appears to offer. Some ‘Camgirls’ have no interaction with people that visit their site but their journals and the cams themselves allow them a high degree of personal expression. This expression is made possible by the protection offered by the safety mechanisms that are built into the technology itself. They are able to have a level of anonymity in the Offline world and yet reveal their intimate private life on the Net.
In my estimation it is the continual revelation of contradiction that make Webcams Real Life - they present an antidote to the seamless, manufactured sanitized construct that has been the staple diet of traditional broadcast media. “The glitches in the matrix” are continuously revealed in these sites through the personal control of content and the low resolution aesthetic which contributes to this sense of life as it is lived. Low tech images are continually uploaded from underlit bedrooms, living-rooms and offices creating a grainy Real Life aesthetic similar to this phenomenon’s antithetical brother the surveillance camera.
What is fascinating for me as an observer of these sites, is the often “gritty” quality to these unsanitized, captured existences. Watch as Psychowhore rises from her bed and dribbles coffee down her chest. Watch as she reads the newspaper. Watch as she sits gazing into space - Will she get up off the couch and if she does what will she do next? In their banality and ordinariness they ask the questions: What is Real Life like? What does it look like? Does it exist and what does it mean?
There are a multitude of permutations of these sites. Some call themselves Performance Artcams (Ana Voog of AnaCam) Some label themselves as sites devoted to a “no-holds barred” vision of Real Life (Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam) some are 24 hour Real Life cams with the focus on an Artcam or Art-journal (Psychowhore; Monty T. Full) There are Webcam sites which offer a pastiche of interesting features to their 24 hour Real Life cams: Gab.gab of gabgab.com is a New York writer who wanted to present a real vision of a New York writers life after being disgusted with the life of the writer depicted in “Sex in the City”. Cykacam (A Russian Webgirl located in Moscow) presents a 24 hour Real Life cam with “Late night ramblings” posted to members via email called “Cykaspeak”. Dawn-Marie’s Fabulous Fishbowl is a site with a stunning and ever-changing visual aesthetic - the design changes as the seasons change and as events take place in her life. Last but not least there are the ubiquitous “Sex Cams” - 24 hour cams that offer sex shows as part of the 24 hour/ 7 days a week lived experience.
Within the wide ranging focus of these sites one aspect is immediately apparent: these sites are populated by strong voices that often consciously refuse to be pigeon-holed or controlled. These sites offer a form of resistance to traditional paradigms of sanitized broadcast media through their confessional and contradictory nature. In these sites there are seldom apologies for contradiction or outbursts. There are statements of a day to day reality and images of a lived experience of reality. A reality recorded Online - a reality that is public not private.
I have included a statement from Ana Voog’s manifesto to demonstrate the elements of defiance that many of the 24 hour Webcams proclaim: “...welcome I’m a paradox (like most people) and I take the liberty to change my mind about anything I say at the drop of a hat…I am coming to the conclusion that this site isn’t about me at all…it’s about YOU!... yes anacam seems to be a giant inkblot that people project their own psyche upon. It’s about PROJECTION what do YOU see here? what do YOU think this site is about? and what does that say about YOU? what does it say about your ideas, morals, ethics, boundaries, state of mind…what do you feel and think about this site? that is my question to you…I am you mirror….I like to push boundaries of what people think a woman is and isn’t I want to break stereotypes because I’m in showbiz people always want to know about me. And they usually get it all wrong and try to put me in a neat little compartmentalized package for mass consumption it’s like having a speculum up your ass and that’s all they can see…just one part of my body (and a small one at that!) they can’t see the whole picture…so I’m doing this to say: HERE YA GO HERE’S MY LIFE, I’M A REAL PERSON AND HERE I AM IN ALL MY MUNDANE AND SPECTACULAR GLORY IT DOESN’T HAVE TO MAKE SENSE…” (http://www.anacam.com/anatomy/).
Webcam girl Psychowhore in her journal entries has a voice that is also contradictory, often obtuse. In that sense it is real - it is not a sanitized, edited construct that we have been conditioned to see as reality by the media. These women consciously state throughout their journals that they resist being pigeonholed. Ana Voog of Anacam consciously aligns herself with Performance artist Yoko Ono. She states: “Her influence on me is not really lyrical or musical…her influence is more that she has always done what she wanted to do with no apologies or explanations and I admire her perseverance and vision to do her own thing no matter what others may think, even though she seems to be one of the most publicly misunderstood people…” (ONOWEB May 20th, 1998 http://www.cam.org/~rjoly/yoko/)
What I found captivating when I “found” these sites was their elusive quality. What struck me as a voyeur/visitor/voyager was how they eluded interpretation at a certain level, how they offered powerful metaphors in their fantastic banality and their sometimes other-worldliness.
Often I found myself watching an image of a woman sleeping, a woman in concentration, a woman in unconscious thought. Sometimes the images presented visions of great beauty, of absence, of presence, of spaces occupied, of possibilities. I was captivated with the wonderful metaphoric capacity of this phenomenon.
I consider the 24 hour Webcam women to be ‘the new cyborgs’ because their lives are almost completely translated into electronic data - a melding of RL (Real Life) with the virtual. The cyborg has become a powerful metaphor both for women Online and theorists writing on Cyberculture:
“We’re moving toward a period of ubiquitous, cyborg technology….it truly is warm-blooded computers, because in cyborg technology the boundary between you and the machine disappears…it becomes a true prosthetic, which is to say, an invisible, impalpable and unconscious extension of your own agency…it becomes part of your presence.” (Stone - Mondo 2000 Interview).
The most powerful metaphor that I glimpsed in these sites was that of the cyborg - a living translation into the digital dimension. For me these sites signify a transitional phase of “becoming” the cyborg, not the terminator of our nightmares. They signify the translation of “life as we know it” into data/information - another dimension.
Statement of Purpose
Theoretically I locate this study within the cross-disciplines of Cultural Studies and Cybercultural Studies. My methodology has been a direct immersion as a viewer and a participant within the Webcam world. I have attempted to present a descriptive analysis of content from interviews and direct observation
Through the writing of this article I hope to demonstrate that Women’s Webcam sites present a form of resistance to the dominant forms of traditional broadcast media by their very existence and presence on the Net:
“Cyberspace is still highly contested ground both in its metaphor and reality, it stands to reason that a conscious decision to put one’s voice Online can be construed as a political act…In one form of resistance it suffices that women are Online. In another, women are Online, they aren’t keeping their mouths shut, and they’re learning how to get heard.” (Scott, 1998).
“Many to many media I think are a revolution in the way the printing press was a revolution…When you collect computers and telecommunications together, you created a global many to many medium that unlocks the access to other people’s minds. You no longer have to be a television network or own a newspaper, take a little computer bulletin board system and publish a manifesto or an eyewitness report, you could be in Tienamen square, you could be anywhere in the world where news is happening and broadcast that news to the world.” (Rheingold, 1995).
The 24 hour live Webcam phenomenon - Context and Critiques
There has not been a great deal of specific focus on Webcams within academic writing. Instead the concentration has been on other examples of CMC (Computer mediated communication) where women are participants or are building narratives on the Net. Academic focus has been on: Women’s ezines, Bulletin Boards, IRC Chat rooms, MUD’s and MOO’s. The majority of writing on the Webcam phenomenon has been generated by the mainstream press and has often concentrated on the more sensational aspects of this phenomenon, i.e. its capacity to attract a voyeuristic following. As a result of this the emphasis has largely been on the glimpses of bare flesh that can be found in the 24 hour live images of Net Stars such as Jennifer Ringley.
However, in an article by Kristine Blair and Pamela Takayoshi entitled “Who’s Gaze is it anyway? -Navigating the Image of Women on Line” the authors examine the complexities of how Women Online (with particular focus on Women’s Webcams) strive to maintain subject status:
“Images of women on the Web exist along a continuum from objectification to representation, and although it would be comforting to attribute all objectifying images to men, it is clear that women grapple with this continuum both consciously and unconsciously in their own production of electronic discourse. The Web phenomenon of Jennifer Ringley provides a good example of a website where these layers of meaning come together….One could theorize Ringley’s feminist status in her obvious control over the presentation of her own image online and her control of what her male viewers are able to gaze…. Still, the addressed and invoked audience for Jennifer’s site is male, a creation of an image by a woman for a man. Jennifer’s site represents a complex dialectic between woman as subject and woman as object, woman as both consumer and consumed, and woman as “performer” of femininity through her interaction with “woman” as object of desire, a positioning that privileges the presence of women Online as objects first, subjects second. As Ringley’s site suggests, women attempting to re-image themselves often have little encouragement from mass culture to produce resistance discourse and often are positioned as both complicit with and resistant to their traditional subject position as an object of desire.”
Lisa Gerrard in an article entitled “Thoughts on Computers, Gender, and the Body Electric” also posits that: “What we have been doing so far is simply carrying our culture Online.” Yet she goes on to state in relation to JenniCam that: “Yet the computer gives us new opportunities to be ourselves. Consider Jennicam…When I first read about JenniCam I thought about Simone de Beauvoir’s discussion of “female narcissism”: a woman who has been taught - as most have - that she will be valued according to her physical appearance goes out of her way to be sure she gets looked at. Jenni’s use of digital technology seemed to be the perfect illustration of female narcissism, and the technology the perfect medium for self-display. But when I logged on to JenniCam I found the site more playful than self-aggrandizing, more of a goofy experiment by a young technophile flaunting a few social conventions. Jenni’s site is a lot like the sites of the other twenty-something women I’ve been analyzing lately: friendly, witty, irreverent, and individual. I don’t know Jenni, but my guess is that technology hasn’t changed her: it’s merely given her a new tool for expressing, and publicizing herself.”
Krista Scott in her article entitled “Girls Need Modems - Cyberculture and Women’s Ezines.” acknowledges that: “...the most important factor Online for women is control of their discourse and identity…”
The object/subject debate, for and regarding women is obviously as important in analyzing images of women that are created and exist in the Online world as it is in the Offline world. The potential and the reality of voyeurism and exploitation of images of women on these Webcam sites is a striking feature in both academic writings and in the mainstream press. However, in my estimation the very presence of the Webcam women on the Net is of the most importance, offering as it does a radical new vision of women’s lived reality in both the Online and Offline worlds, 24/7.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.
// Marginal Utility
"The social-media companies have largely succeeded in persuading users of their platforms' neutrality. What we fail to see is that these new identities are no less contingent and dictated to us then the ones circumscribed by tradition; only now the constraints are imposed by for-profit companies in explicit service of gain.READ the article