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Jennifer, the girl who changed the world

Jennifer Ringley's jennicam website laid the platform for social media as we know it today

20 years ago a US student turned on the webcam on top of her computer, and life has never been the same.

Jennifer, the girl who changed the world

Twenty years ago, a 19-year-old student named Jennifer Ringley turned on a webcam on top of the computer in her college dorm – and changed the world. Rather than use the cam to speak to friends and family back home in Harrisburg, Pennyslvania, she broadcast herself live to the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One grainy, still, black-and-white image on her Jennicam website was replaced every 15 seconds by another grainy, still, black-and-white image. It began every platform, every channel of social media that we know today.

In 1996 you had to use a modem and dial-up connection to access the fledgling web. Websites took minutes to upload and you paid for each minute. Jennifer’s stream of pictures of a usually empty room (if she was at class, or in the loo), or Jennifer looking at the computer, doing her laundry or brushing her teeth were utterly compelling.

Four million people – a far greater proportion of internet users then than today – would watch her updates of daily life. She literally crashed the web. Jennifer was innocent in her approach, genuine and young, and the attention she received from the New York Times or The Late Show with David Letterman shows an almost parental sense of protectiveness.

For her fans, Jennifer’s appeal was her everday-ness. People would tune in on a Saturday night while they were folding sheets, and see her doing her laundry too. She was a real person, famous for being herself. A community grew in the chatroom on her site, where she also hung out. She was accessible – something new for her audience, recent converts to the web, who had never known this kind of connection with someone they’d met online. Probably for Jennifer, too.

In one night, an infamous, intimate encounter with her boyfriend changed the tone to condemnation, to now-familiar accusations of on-screen narcissism and exhibitionism.

Jennifer shut off the cam in 2003, and disappeared completely. Some suggest she was reclaiming herself, growing out of adolescence, and saying something profound about privacy in the media age.

Jennifer’s experiment, her public coming of age, inspired the first conversations about digital over-sharing, online expression, the meaning of online community. Or maybe she was just a kid who was learning who she was, using the means at her disposal.

Jennifer Ringley

  • Started Jennicam in 1996 while studying at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania
  • At its peak got seven million hits per day
  • Switched off in 2003
  • Now 40 and known by her married name, Jennifer Johnson
  • Works as a computer programmer in Sacramento, California
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