December 11, 2003,
Here's a sign of the times: JenniCam, the site on which you can view real-time video of life inside Jenni Ringley's bedroom, is shutting down on December 31 after more than seven years "on the air" (or whatever the properly postmodern term for webcasting is).
I hadn't heard anything about Jenni and her so-called life for ages, but there was a time when her website was all the rage, so much so that she attracted quite a few subscribers willing to pay for premium content, not to mention half-witted academic theory-spinners like the professor of psychology who penned the following paragraph, for which he doubtless received tenure:
The JenniCam phenomenon is a unique example of how cyberspace addresses such needs for belonging and the social affirmation of self. There was an overwhelming response to Jennifer Ringley when she set up a live, continuous video broadcast of her dorm room, and then later her apartment. People who idealized, even worshipped, Jenni banded together in groups to talk about her, speculate about her, share screen-captured pictures of her. She became the focal point of their camaraderie. Their collective admiration of her a kind of idealizing transference served to bolster their sense of self.
Jenni herself was a bit of a theory-spinner, in her fashion. Asked by an interviewer to explain the appeal of her site, she replied:
I think people are getting tired of seeing airbrushed models in magazines and unrealistic actors and actresses living unrealistic lives. The real lives of real people are even more special and interesting and "perfect" than what you find on TV. I try to impress the idea that I do the JenniCam with the belief that EVERYONE is so special, and I hope that's what people come away with.
JenniCam was, of course, nothing more than a hula-hoop-type fad, but seven years ago the web itself was still something of a giant-sized hula-hoop, in much the same way as was television circa 1948. Back then, pretty much anything could draw a crowd championship wrestling, roller derbies, B-movie matinees simply because TV itself was so new that people would watch whatever was on, fascinated not by the message but by the medium. The Internet was like that in 1996. Now it's part of the air we breathe, so much so that I rarely stop to reflect on what life was like before e-mail, amazon.com, Google, and blogs.
To be sure, most blogs are the verbal equivalent of JenniCam, but the silly ones neither get nor deserve much attention. Instead, the blog has evolved with astonishing speed into something far removed from mere faddishness. It is now a full-fledged journalistic medium, the first truly new one since the dawn of network TV. JenniCam was a curiosity, but blogs or something like them are here to stay.
Nevertheless, Jenni Ringley has earned herself a footnote in the history of the information age: She will be remembered as the Milton Berle of the web. She was present at the creation of a radically innovative form of interpersonal communication, and used it to show the world her underwear. What's more, the world turned out to be interested in her underwear briefly. Then something more interesting came along, and Jenni's underwear turned out not to be soooooo special after all.
Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. His latest book, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, is out in paperback from Perennial. This piece first appeared on his blog, www.terryteachout.com.