the first camgirls:
concretecam jennicam anacam shakticam
The first camgirls were at the beginnings of live streaming and our current social media landscape, but what came before camming? In her master’s thesis, “I’m Not Who I Was Then, Now: Performing Identity in Girl Cams and Blogs,” written in 2007 University of South Florida art history student Katherine Bzura examined the early camgirls. Before Jennifer Ringley began her constant live broadcast, Bzura explains, “Home pages were the first and simplest form of online identity. If you wanted people to be able to find you on-line, it was necessary to define a space and deposit personal information in it…”3 Most academics who wrote about the first camgirls believed that these young women wanted to provide an accurate; authentic snapshot of themselves by offering viewers a continuous web cam view.
In the documentary, Webcam Girls (2005) interviewee Theresa Sneft, author of Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks (2008), describes camming as autobiography reiterating the importance of a consistent online presence to create a personal brand that may achieve micro-celebrity. Sneft’s fascination with these camgirls came from the contextualization of their web cams. Through the addition of diary-like blog posts, chat rooms, image galleries and fan clubs all coded and interconnected within the design of their home page. Everything a camgirl wanted her viewers to know was featured in one place rather than scattered across various social media platforms. And all of this was monitored and regulated by the camgirl herself, a stark difference from today’s social media with its community guidelines and reporting systems for censorship.
Melissa Gira Grant, who went as shakticam and echocam during her time as a camgirl, wrote a reflective piece on the short-lived community for Rhizome in 2011. Here she explains the importance of LiveJournal. Launched in 1999, LiveJournal was a service that allowed for diary-like blog postings to be embedded into one’s personal home page.
Today’s posts on Instagram lack the contextualization provided by an interconnected home page and the creative expression that comes with coding one’s own online space. Current social media platforms offer users a standardized platform to deposit personal information within its confines where value is to be judged and placed on subjectivity. The kind of editing and curating of one’s own image we see today on Instagram could not fully be achieved with the constantly refreshing web cam images included on a camgirl’s site. Despite the conditions online, we all perform or stage our identity to some degree especially when it comes to our gender and sexuality. Being in public, whether that be physically or digitally, necessitates this performance. So what did it mean to turn the private into public with the democratization of computer technology and therefore the World Wide Web? Camgirls able to invite large amounts of people to watch their bedrooms at any time… What kind of performativity were these women participating in?
In a 2016 interview with writer and academic, Moira Weigel, digital performance artist Ann Hirsch, whose work has been inspired by camgirls, said of current social media,
So often we feel we must conform to more stereotypical portrayals of ourselves in order to be part of this attention economy and to have a voice. This has happened for me on a personal level—where, in order to be seen, I know sexy selfies will be liked the most.5
Whereas the first camgirl Jennifer Ringley has maintained that her intention with camming was never solely about her sexual identity. In a 2014 interview for the podcast Reply All, Ringley explained that the broadcasting of sex on jennicam was more about not wanting to turn away the cameras, “…if I really wanted to be able to ignore the cameras as much as I wanted to, then they just had to keep running.” Critical articles in the late 1990s from small newspaper outlets chronicled her “striptease” performances, as well as, a section of jennicam called “Anatomy One-oh-One” which was a head-to-toe tour of Ringley’s body with detailed comments.6 In considering how writers and interviewers have continuously questioned Ringely’s intentions and that of other camgirls past and present I’d like to point out the title of Weigel’s interview with Hirsch… “We socialize young women to seek attention and later punish them for it.”7
Judith Butler, the philosopher and gender theorist, confirms this socializing in Undoing Gender suggesting that we perform gender norms as they were taught to us by our society, “…the terms that make up one’s own gender are, from the start, outside oneself, beyond oneself in a sociality that has no single author.”8 The Internet only heightens and furthers this sociality in what Hirsch describes as the “attention economy.” In “Redoing Feminism: Digital Activism, Body Politics and Neoliberalism” by Hester Baer the author writes that social media platforms emphasis “on commodified self-representation and the widespread digital dissemination of images of the material body escalate the demands of hegemonic femininity.”9 And in a Western society, the standard of hegemonic femininity is one of young, white cisgendered women of able bodies.
The Internet intensifies pressure to perform and conform, but what kind of good could come out of camming and its sociality? In the introduction to her book on the early camgirls titled, “The Personal as Political in the Age of the Global Network,” Sneft discusses her mother’s participation in consciousness-raising groups of the sixties and seventies. According to the National Women’s Liberation organization, a feminist group born out of the 1968 movement that called for the elevation of women in society, Consciousness-Raising was and is a tool for uncovering the political root of women’s so-called “personal problems” by relating their lives to group questions.10
Sneft contemplates C-R within the World Wide Web emphasizing the ability to consume and then respond, “…on the Web, the dialectical nature of communication is itself political in nature, regardless of content, particularly if one understands politics as the leveraging of power between connected entities.”11 Sneft emphasized the micro in several respects in her book, the micro-celebrity camgirls could garner and the micro-political; the idea that localized discussions in nonpolitical arenas could lead to larger macro-political effects. However, I question if the dialectical possibilities of the WWW have come to be hindered by the dilution of communication through standardization and censorship of social media, as well as, the increased inclusion of commercial advertising.
By offering a site of comparison with the possibility of unhindered response from viewers, could the online spaces the first camgirls created be considered feminist simply because of their motivation to be authentic? In that these young women by presenting their “unfiltered” lives subverted commercialized images of femininity that surrounded them in advertisements, magazines and movies. Images that embraced shaving body hair, wearing makeup, being discrete about one’s menstruation, saving oneself for heterosexual marriage, etc. Or has this idea of empowerment only later been analyzed and placed by academics like Theresa Sneft?
In considering self-portraiture and its connections to feminism, the kind of individualistic sharing these camgirls did and we currently do on social media, may be more isolating and exclusionary than it is relatable and therefore dialectic. Theresa Sneft gets to this point when she quotes feminist scholar Rita Felski,
Is the act of confessing a liberating step for women, which uncovers the political dimensions of the personal experience, confronts the contradictions of existing gender roles, and creates an important sense of female identification and solidarity? Or does this kind of [confession] uncritically reiterate the “jargon of authenticity” and ideology of subjectivity-as-truth which feminism should be calling into question?12
Although Sneft’s opinion varied on the political nature of camming she certainly saw a power in participating and creating media rather than just simply consuming, author Susan Hopkins saw camming as merely young women and girls chasing after celebrity. In “Camgirls: Live on the Net” written in 2002 author of Girl Heroes: The New Force In Popular Culture describes camming as “obsessive self-documentation” being “more than narcissism.”13 Confirmed by the shallow idea of “girl power” in which “being a sex object is not about sex at all—it’s about power.”14 Hopkins seemed to believe that these young women were self-exploiting and was dismayed to see that, “The vocabulary and images of sexist exploitation have been appropriated by camgirls.”15
The previously mentioned digital performance artist Ann Hirsch’s work “Scandalishious” (2008-2009) intentionally appropriated the language of camgirls for an eighteen-month long performance on YouTube. Hirsch’s character Caroline was a self-described “hipster college freshman” who regularly uploaded videos of herself “dancing provocatively.”16 Hirsch’s work is uncomfortably playful; there is a kind of irony and parody to the work as Hirsch exaggerates the tropes of the camgirl, essentially a woman who self-exploits for attention. Caroline’s YouTube profile became widely popular engaging more that an art world audience. In its restoration by Rhizome in 2018 for the Net Art Anthology, a two year long exhibition presenting net art history, “Scandalishious” is presented with viewer’s comments and video responses, their engagement with the work equally as important as the performance itself.17
By positioning the work as an art performance Hirsch played into our expectations of women in media. She exposed camgirls to be any other genre with conventions that could be followed to gain access to a community. However, over time Hirsch believes that Caroline’s imitation of mediated “sexiness” began to crack revealing awkwardness and insecurity. She took the standardized platform of YouTube and exerted some degree of control by assessing the trends and tropes to create something staged yet altogether real, performance becoming the context to understand her actions online.
12. ibid from Rita Felski, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989)