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.
Is it real life?
There is a range of debate throughout writings on the Webcam phenomenon as to how much is staged/faked or performance and how much is real: i.e. the presentation of the ‘lived life’ 24 hours/ 7 days of a woman.
This discourse ranges from feminist critics such as Lisa Gerrard who see the Real Life aspects of these sites as allowing new opportunities for women to “be ourselves” to the vehement criticism often found in the mainstream press which has focused on the “faked” or “sex performance” aspects that are present in some of these sites. Robert Everett Green reporting in The Globe and Mail, 1998: “Voyeurism has never had it so good. But what exactly is being seen through these keyholes into other peoples lives – unvarnished reality or layers of personal fantasy?” (Green, 1998).
Without exception the Webcam sites that I have studied have all declared their sites as purporting to depict Real Life, life as it is lived. Sites like JenniCam openly declare that her site is a ‘no holds barred’ look at her life. JenniCam and Anacam the two most highly visible Net Stars of the 24 hour Webcam phenomenon, differ from the host of 24 hour Women’s Webcam sites on the Net in that neither censor nudity or sex on their sites.
Regarding the Real Life aspect of her site Jenni sticks to her self-imposed rules: “…never turn off the camera; carry on with whatever I’m doing as if no-one were watching.” (Firth,1998).
Jenni has stated: “I just wanted to show people that what we see on TV – people with perfect hair, perfect friends and perfect lives is not reality…I’m reality.” (Humphreys, 1998).
Ana Voog from AnaCam states: “If you want to categorize me and figure out who I am? Then watch me sleep, watch me eat, watch me take a shower, watch me be depressed.” (Walsh, 1998).
I asked Psychowhore if she enjoyed this aspect of showing herself ‘warts and all’: “I do – Yes I think if you’re going to do a 24 hour Cam then you have to be as honest as you possibly can be – you can’t do your make-up before you get out of bed…You can’t hide under the sheet and do your face and hair – you can’t do that and stay honest.”
Mae Midwest (Mile Highrise Webcam) also revels in the honest aspects of Webcams: “real life is not pretty – that’s why people are such fans of Webcams – they want to see real people in all their silly glory…at first (when you start a Webcam) you are nervous and want to make sure you look ‘Hollywood’, glamorous with makeup and big hair and just the right angles – After that the novelty wears off, you forget the cam is even on – I think that the best shots happen when someone is not posing for their cams.”
One of the most interesting features of the “real-life” aspect of the Webcam phenomenon is that 24 hour/7 day cams capture women when they are sleeping. For me, this has become the most intriguing and powerful image of Real Life that I have glimpsed in my immersion in the Webcam world. To quote Baudrillard: “There is no point identifying the world. Things have to be grasped in their sleep, or in any other circumstance where they are absent from themselves.” (Baudrillard, 1996).
Webcam girl, Monty.T.Full comments that Webcams have the potential to offer an alternative view of women – a more real image of women: “It’s a nice thing, in my opinion to see another female sleeping as I do on my Webcam….Very plain, very simple…not made-up in their little teddies in a sexy pose all night…I find it more interesting to see them as they are when they’re asleep…it’s something you really don’t see every day.”
Cyka of CykaCam comments that: “I think it’s awesome to see women in their ‘ordinary states’ – all crashed out sleeping etc….I’ve had people save pictures of me sleeping and drooling, and sitting around with my hair all messed up, and I’m not embarrassed. I see it more as being a real person, because a real person isn’t always perfectly made up and well groomed.”
Electronic images of Webcam Women sleeping present a powerful vision of Real Life where a woman is captured throughout her sleep cycle in an unconscious state. By their existence in this medium they present the questions: Can a woman still be performing while she is sleeping? Is she still a vision of artifice? When I asked Webcam girl Dawn Marie the question: Do you feel that you are presenting a more real vision or representation of yourself because of the random nature of the image being captured? she answered: “Well, you don’t get too much more real than a sleep cam.”
Identification – banality, boredom, surprise and discovery
The presentation of Women’s lives as they are lived in 24 hour/7 day Webcam sites have offered powerful and interesting visions of women’s lived experience Online: Simon Firth in his article “Live from my Bedroom” for Salon Magazine has proposed: “That personal Webcams are beloved by Web voyeurs certainly helps explain their slightly disreputable image. But if the majority of self-styled “fans” of the cams were first drawn to them by a rather conventional quest for titillation, they’ve sometimes found their ideas about their own desires challenged in fascinating ways.” He goes on to say: “The images these sites offer are both banal and arousing, deeply ordinary and deeply disturbing. They mess with the ideas we have about our own desires – about what we find attractive or interesting in people. They invite us to be intimates and keep us at a distance. No wonder we are fascinated but don’t necessarily ‘get it’ right away.” (Firth, 1998).
Often the very ‘ordinariness’ or ‘banality’ of lived experience 24 hours a day have captivated visitors to these sites and presented them with a sense of identification with the ordinary aspects of life as it is lived: “I like having the ability to look into a ‘regular’ life to see that it is no better or worse than my own” says 28 year-old software specialist Paul Sihoven-Binder. Through observing Jenni cuddling with her boyfriend or playing with her two cats. He says he appreciates his wife more: “None of the things I notice by watching Jenni are really all that earth-shattering. Which I guess is the point.” He says: “I begin to see that those everyday things in life make it special and make it worthwhile.” (Humphreys, 1998).
“An overweight 16-year-old once thanked Jenni for being open about her less than perfect body and a lonely guy once told her he felt like a loser until he discovered that she too was doing her laundry on a Friday night.” (Humphreys, 1998).
Psychowhore comments on this sense of identification which draws visitors to Webcam sites: “its just validation for being human…I do think that it is the need for other people to identify with the ordinary aspects of the life they see on cam…a lot of people like to be loners but deep down they still need a sense of community or they do have a desire to fit in.”
Cyka from Cykakam echoed Psychowhore’s response: “I believe that humans are incredibly insecure and to watch someone else go about their ordinary lives, cleaning teeth, doing laundry, getting dressed, etc. provides them with a sense of security, that what they do in their own lives is OK.”
Yet there are negative aspects of this ‘Fandom’ or identification with the women of these sites from site visitors: “One guy wrote Jenni eight times a day, wanting to be ‘my confidante’ when she didn’t respond he eventually stopped writing but not before telling her he was hurt that she didn’t put any energy into their relationship. Jennifer states: “For some reason the camera makes people think they know me, so they send me emails with their entire life’s story”. (Humphreys, 1998).
Psychowhore comments on this issue of over-identification or harassment Online by stating that: I had a couple of times where people were going out of their way to embarrass me – I had one person go out of his way to collect every single, even slight, flesh shot of me that they could find and post them up on a Website somewhere which didn’t actually bother me to much because you are opening yourself up for it if it bothers you about nudity, but it had a very nasty mentality to it, it was like – I’ll get you for something.” She states that: “You need a big ego to have a Webcam, if you’ve got a fragile person who is doing a Webcam to boost their own self image then it’s not going to work. You need to have a strong ego to start it and it just makes your ego stronger.”
Eris of Eriscam reports that she was bombarded with hate mail when she first set up her Webcam: “at first there were emails calling me fat and ugly – I had never had my looks attacked in real-life” This abuse temporarily stopped her from being on cam.
Without exception all of the Webcam women that I interviewed had received harassing
communications from men through the Computer Mediated Communications systems that they had available on their sites. The methods of how this harassment was dealt with ranged from ignoring harassment, to posting sexist or ‘flaming’ messages on their site to hopefully embarrass the sender. Yet some Camgirls have taken the drastic step of shutting down any form of access to communication from the visitors to their sites.
Elements of risk and safety – empowerment
“The most important factor Online for women is control of their discourse and identity.” (Scott, 1998).
As I have stated previously 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 the freedom of discourse that women want to experience on the Net – some ‘Camgirls’ have no interaction with people that visit their site – yet their journals and the cams allow them a strong sense of personal expression: The elements of safety built into the technology largely protect them. They have a level of anonymity in the Offline world yet reveal their intimate private life on the Net:
“Control of the transaction, whether writer and reader or Webcam subject and viewer is paramount, and it is a key reason that most diarists of both kinds are women…Journalling is a confiding act, and as such probably comes easier to women than to men in our society but without the Web’s built-in security features it is doubtful that so many women would be comfortable exposing their minds and bodies Online. A web address gives no reliable clues about the physical address and a camera that is turned on can as easily be turned off. That exercise of power over the technology and the mostly male viewers is one that some (Webcam) journalling women clearly enjoy…” (Green, 1998).
In rare instances elements of the control over the technology are occasionally transgressed. A hacker broke into Jennifer Ringley’s site and replaced all the images with images of dismembered corpses (Humphreys, 1998).
However, when images of women are presented Online the potential freedoms that are found in text-based forms of CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) no longer exist. Firth warns that: “digital cameras destroy anonymity …you cannot “gender fuck” or escape the rules of attractiveness that favor the young, thin, and the rich…” (Firth, 1998).
With text based CMC there was for a time a certain level of freedom that came with the territory of anonymity yet as Lisa Gerrard posits: with Webcams: “The body was back – well, two-dimensionally, but still you could send an image of your physical self over the wires – so we’re back now where we started: as in the pre-network days, a women’s body defines her. She has to decide whether to put her picture on her personal Website: if she is pretty, will she be taken seriously as a professional? if she is young or old will she be taken seriously at all? if she wears makeup will someone think she’s on the make? what if she is thin or fat? The fact that so much of our culture has moved Online makes no difference: Online or off we live in a world that has trouble seeing past a woman’s body.”
By publishing their image on the Web 24 hours/7 days a week these Webgirls are taking a risk – they are risking that their images will be used to satiate male desire. They are risking their image being downloaded and attached to Websites such as “Toupes Babes…then rated by the number of hits they receive.” (Blair/Takayoshi,1999). Yet one of the aspects of risk-taking commented on throughout my interviews is that it is creative, dynamic and most of all exciting. By living life on the Web these women are empowering themselves and offering at the same time a vibrant image of resistance to the cosmetic image of women portrayed in traditional Offline mass media:
These sites: “…attempt to emphasize characteristics of strength, self esteem and intelligence…For CyberGrrls everywhere, the Web offers the potential for openly rewriting oneself in resistance to the narrow image of women as the weaker sex….She can reach even farther and touch the peoples of the world with an action as simple as publishing her own homepage…” (Blair/Takayoshi, 1999).
The emergence of the Net Star
“We live in a society that loves a lens.” (Hawn, 1997).
The emergence of what has been called “The Net Star” has been a phenomenon of 24 hour live Webcam sites created by women, that has captivated the imagination of the mainstream media. The ‘cult of celebrity’ in the Offline world has been transferred to the Net.
Net Fame is different to Offline fame in that it is largely contained within the Online world: “An entire Online culture has now grown up around the camera sites…catalogs, archives, discussion sites, even Meta-sites that show you the latest live pictures from the 20 or so most popular Webcams.” (Firth, 1998).
In an article by David P. Marshall called “Confession and Identity” Marshall outlines the desire for recognition and the obsessional nature of public confession that has proliferated on American talk-shows and in the homepages of the Net:
“The confession makes great television because it defines the moment where the guard is lowered, where the anonymity of the private self is suddenly revealed. It also becomes the stock material for the internet. Personal webpages become the location for revealing a new version of the private/public self. What links these public representations of identity through revelation is that they presume an audience. The presumption of an audience is the way that contemporary identity is now more connected to a clearly identified desire to be notorious. The contemporary self demands outside and anonymous recognition for internal validation – in other words a television audience or reasonable facsimile. Fame and identity intertwine and the confession becomes the channel through which the individual can make the private self clearly public.” (Marshall, David P. 1998).
One of the drawcards of these 24 hour live Webcam sites for both the creator and the viewer is the element of disclosure. In the case of Net Stars Jennifer Ringley and Ana Voog this disclosure of living life ‘no-holds barred’ on a 24 hour live cam stretches any previously held notions of boundaries between the public and the private. Jennifer Ringley and AnaVoog have both had sex on cam. When Jennifer Ringley had sex on cam for the first time the server crashed as an unprecedented number of people logged on at the same time.
Webgirls, such as Psychowhore, have commented on the transgressive nature of this phenomenon and the drawcard to visitors that this represents she states that it is the possibility that something slightly forbidden might happen that is the interesting thing. It might not necessarily be that sex is the drawcard it could be the glimpse of the transgression of any social taboo: “if it’s forbidden its going to be seen as interesting no matter what it is – sex just happens to be one of the taboos – its less to do with sex and more to do with what is forbidden.”
Throughout my interviews the element of disclosure and a desire for greater exposure was a recurring theme amongst Webcam Women. The aspect of being seen and heard and the ability to be able to communicate on a mass scale was one of the attractive features of the medium.
Yet as Simon Firth warns, celebrity might ruin the charm of the most interesting Webcam sites: “While people like Jenni and Ana are already celebrities and exist for most of us in a purely mediated hyperreal space, they are also the solitary surfers own rather wonderful, disquieting discoveries – But now that they’ve come to the attention of a commercial media hungry for novelty the owners of these cams risk being turned into what they are at the present the very opposite of, unremarkable and disposable celebrities manufactured and sold to us within the conventional product cycle of corporate media.” (Firth,1998).
Resistance to broadcast media – self-publishing – self surveillance
Theorists such as Howard Rhiengold and Umberto Eco signal the danger for democracy if the Web is controlled by corporate media. Rheingold posits that emerging forms of self-publishing on the net offer a challenge to the traditional broadcast paradigm: “What’s important is not how you put…words together in a machine, what’s important is what a population does with it. 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…I believe that is as fundamental a power as the printing press was. And I think ultimately if you believe in democracy, it’s a very important step forward.” (Rheingold quoted in Scott, 1998).
Throughout the previous sections of this article I have tried to highlight the freedom for discourse that 24 hour/7 day Webcam sites represent for women and I have aligned some of these aspects to the need for decentralized control over the internet that Net theorists such as Rheingold, Eco et al. have presented throughout their writings.
One of the strong points and seductions of the medium is the possibility for people to produce and control the dissemination of their own narratives online:
“Most Web diarists say that they want to get at something real, however humble, as opposed to the fabricated images of reality provided by mass media….some even suggest that the diaries represent a mass revelation of the truth that may lead the world, New Age-style, to a higher plane of consciousness…” (Green, 1998).
As OrpheliaZ the founder of ‘Open Pages’ states: “With every byte of ‘dear diary’ that’s put online, however mundane or extreme, the more complete and accessible the essence of mankind.” (Green, 1998).
Dawn Marie (Fabulous Fishbowl) commented on the freedom inherant in the medium of personal Webcam sites: “For me its the ability to be heard and seen by the audience and to get feedback and approval…for the visitors it’s just a way to get involved in someone’s life without having to open up your own life to them.”
Monty T. Full was also captivated with the empowering aspects of Webcams as a means for discourse: “The cam satiates my need for personal expression and I have a great deal of control over that expression…”
“Since ezines like ‘zines and the majority of other sites on the Web (Webcams) are directly produced by their creators, without intervention from editors, publishers or even collective editorial boards, and are not governed by any rules on content, they are generally driven by their creator’s sense of identity or interests, and are often highly autobiographical. Because of this self-production, ezines provide a forum for their creators to express themselves freely with little mediation between creator and publisher. The perceived immediacy of the electronic medium (plus our ability to interact with it on the microlevel through, for instance, sending email to creators) augments the illusion of direct contact between creator and reader.” (Scott, 1998).
Yet various critics have named this belief in the democratic nature of access that the Online world is touted to offer, as Utopian and have posited that access is at this point in history a largely mythological concept for the majority of the worlds population. As Senft states in “Performing the Digital Body – A Ghost Story”: “two thirds of the world’s population have yet to make a telephone call, never mind have access to the internet.” Utopian theories of the democratized vision of access that the internet has come to symbolize have also been criticized by feminists who posit that it is a white middle-class representation of women that is the dominant representation of women Online (Blair,1999).
In conclusion I have decided to adopt the “National Geographic” voice-over, documentary style of ending – namely: moving from tales of empowerment and the triumph and resistance of the human spirit to the inevitable warning of the human capacity to continually destroy everything by ignoring all the billboard size warning signs:
Recently I had to move house and the van that I hired to move my possessions had a camera mounted on the dashboard. This camera recorded the entire rear view of the road behind as I drove along, in the light of my current research this was a strange and disconcerting moment of synchronicity. In grainy black and white I saw the view behind me streaming along at a rapid pace and I experienced in a flash Buadrillard’s proposition, that the whole world will be surveyed, that everything will be transformed into information – The final solution:
MR BAUDRILLARD: “One day, perhaps, all that substance will be transformed into energy and all that energy into pure information. This will be, in a way, the definitive ‘acting-out’, the total achievement, the final solution. Everything will be accomplished, realized and, at the same time, ejected into the void. Delivered from ourselves, we shall enter the spectral, problem-free universe. This is what is meant by the great model of Virtuality.” (Baudrillard, 1996)
MS TANAKA: “Webcams are sure to be a feature of tomorrow’s technology landscape. People are increasingly discovering practical uses for them, such as monitoring a beach house during winter months or peeking in on kids through Webcammed day-care centers. In the future Webcams might allow you to check out the scene inside a nightclub before you stand in line. These sorts of applications may well prove indispensable – and, in the process, make Webcam addicts of us all.” (Tanaka, 1999)
MR VIRILIO: “There is a great science-fiction short story in which a camera has been invented which can be carried by flakes of snow. Cameras are inseminated into artificial snow which is dropped by planes, and when the snow falls, there are eyes everywhere. There is no blind spot left.” (Wilson,1999)
It is ironic that what I (and others) have posited as a form of resistance, by its very presence in a new and powerful medium, to the traditional paradigm of broadcast media, could be one of the clear warning signals of the future of telepresence.
At present the ‘Camgirls’ are controlling the capture of their own image – it is they who purchase and set up their digital cameras within the various rooms that they inhabit and it is their own individual voices inscribed within the medium that we connect with. Yet one could project a future scenario where we have colluded with the powers that be to install this technology in our various spaces with a faith in the freedoms of decentralized surveillance – monitoring the beach house, checking the tables at a restaurant etc. And the day does not seem to far away where our willingness to embrace this technology could be co-opted and centralized.
The 24 hour lives of these ‘Camgirls’ translated into electronic images through the choice of self-surveillance could be the lives that we all may not so willingly be living, rising slowly up from the depths to meet us like a terrible fish.
* * *
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Interviews – Camgirls
Psycowhore: 1 October 1999.
Cykakam: 21 January 2000.
Dawn Marie’s Fabulous Fishbowl: 19 January 2000.
Amanda Mayqueen: 19 January 2000.
Monty. T. Full: 21 January 2000.
RachealCam: 8 November 1999.