'Ed' of the Internet: JenniCAM going strong after three years
By Jamie Allen
(CNN) -- It doesn't have the plotline of an "EDtv" or "Truman Show," it's not a porno site, and the proprietor, Jennifer Kaye Ringley, says she doesn't get a rush out of having people watch her undress.
Instead, JenniCAM (jennicam.org), that Web site that offers a 24-hour view of the inside of Ringley's Washington, D.C. apartment (and virtually every detail of her life spent there), is an attempt to teach that even average people are worth watching and learning from, too.
"I'm trying to prove the point that no matter what you look like, you're still just as interesting as people on the TV or in the magazines," says the auburn-locked Ringley.
She has a hard time convincing certain people that this is the real reason she created her site, which has been online for three years (she was the first human to offer her life to the masses via the Internet; there are dozens of others now). JenniCAM's four cameras, which allow members to see an updated still picture every two minutes, has featured pictures of her having sex, taking a shower, disrobing.
In the process, several conservative groups and some feminists have chastised her for, Ringley says, "exploiting the female body for fun and profit."
But Ringley maintains that she's not running a sex site.
"You can come to my site for days and never once catch me naked," she says.
And besides, getting undressed, showering and having sex -- along with sitting in front of the TV, eating, and doing laundry -- are precisely the things people do in the privacy of their homes.
In short, Ringley is the "Ed" of the Internet. She has dedicated her life to being an open book, a voluntarily Orwellian existence that allows strangers a peek of her at the height of passion, or more likely, sitting in front of her computer, staring blankly at the screen as she works at her real job, a freelance gig designing Web sites.
"I think it's human to not want to be alone," she says. "And with JenniCAM, they put it in the corner of their (computer) monitor and it's like having someone in the next room."
'I've learned so much'
Ringley, 22, is obviously not your average 20-something. In fact, she's a bit of an overachiever. She says she started programming in fourth grade, and in school she was a self-described "robo-nerd," excelling in classes. She skipped her senior year in high school to attend Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
While there, she says she was too busy with school and work to attend even one -- yes, one -- fraternity party. But she did get the idea to launch a Web site featuring a camera in her apartment. Using a camera from the school library, she created the site as a "programming challenge."
At first blush, a few friends knew about it. Then, like that old shampoo commercial, they told two friends, and they told two friends ...
Now she receives an average of 700 e-mails a day, some from people offering advice -- "If you sleep that way you're going to have back problems"; "That toothpaste that you use doesn't work."
And then there's the unsolicited comments about her looks.
"A fifth say, 'You're so fat and ugly. Get off the camera,'" Ringley says. "Another half of them say, 'You're gorgeous.' Within the first few days, you really start to take a closer look at yourself. Having this Web site I've learned so much about myself ... that I really don't care what people think about me anymore."
'They thought it was a porno thing'
OK, but what do her parents think?
Ringley admits they hated it at first, assuming -- like many -- that their daughter had succumbed to selling herself over the Internet.
"At first they were really unexcited about the site because they thought it was a porno thing," she says. "But we sat down and had several long conversations, and we're comfortable with it."
Now, her mom visits the site regularly, and even reads through her daughter's journals, which Ringley says are filled with completely honest entries (read them; you might agree).
The journal, in fact, is something new to Ringley. She started writing it about six months ago, and since her life is an open book, she included it on the Web page. But sometimes it's still hard for her.
"The journal is more difficult, because I can put up with people judging me harshly physically," she says. "But when people send you e-mail criticizing your philosophy or your way of life, it does get a little touchy. But I try really hard to write what I would normally write and just go with it."
The site also includes the "JenniSHOW" (a biweekly videotaped episode featuring Ringley with titles like "Truman vs. Jenni," "Meet Mom and Dad," and "Makin Paper"), "JenniCAM Co-Stars" (her pets, which include three cats, two ferrets and a hedgehog), and "JenniCAM Gallery" (a collection of viewer-favorite JenniCAM pictures).
And while there's no plotline on JenniCAM, there are real-life developments -- for instance, she had a steady boyfriend (who didn't mind the camera), but that relationship came to an end.
'Scared out of my mind'
Ringley charges members $15 a year to watch her life in 2-minute increments, but surfers can log on to "JenniCAM Guests" and watch her life in 20-minute increments for free. Ringley says she makes minimal profit, and the low price is evidence of her honest intentions.
"I'm very aware that sex sells," she says. "If I were trying to make money I would certainly do more things to make people come to the site." She says JenniCAM receives 3 million to 4 million hits a day.
Inevitably, when you agree to show your private self to the world, there is the issue of security. At one point early in JenniCAM's existence, the site was hacked and Ringley received death threats.
"I didn't leave my room for three days; I kept all the blinds closed," Ringley says, explaining that the hackers turned out to be teen pranksters. "I was scared out of my mind. Now I have an unlisted phone and address, and I have security at the front desk of my apartment."
"I think it's human to not want to be alone ... it's like having someone in the next room."
In recent months, Ringley has reached the cusp of "EDtv" popularity: she is now recognized on the streets. But she's finding out that people don't always follow the "I'm just like you" theme.
One guy, who had seen her in a restaurant, sent her an e-mail claiming he had been too intimidated to talk to her.
"I try to make it my life's work to be approachable ... and sometimes it's not working," she says.
'Real life is right now'
Ringley says she will keep the site going indefinitely -- "I can't imagine any situation which would cause me to want to" take it down.
And she'll deal with the criticism. She recently appeared on the talk show "Leeza" (airing March 29), and she says she was promised it would be a fun presentation of her site, but instead turned into a show in which they "repeatedly and intentionally presented information that they knew to be false in order to bias the audience."
It's almost as if she's fighting a battle she can't win. At this moment in time, and because she was the first, people naturally criticize her. But she's committed to spreading her message: that it's OK to reveal our humanity.
She recalls one "favorite" e-mail that she received from a lonely college student. It was a Friday night and the student was spending the night home alone, doing laundry, and feeling "like a loser." Bored, the student called up JenniCAM. What did he see? Ringley, sitting in her apartment, logged on to her computer, with a basket of dirty clothes behind her.
Ringley says it made the guy feel like he was no longer alone -- and suddenly it was OK to sit home on a Friday night and do laundry.
"I don't want to sound like I'm saving the world," says Ringley. "But I think it's a really valuable, simple enough lesson that a lot of people need to hear.
"People are always waiting for their real life to start," Ringley says. "We always feel like we have to measure up to something. Real life is right now. This is what it's all about."
Review: Tune in, turn on to 'EDtv'
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