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  • Marianne Tambini

(ARCHIVE FEVER) 1997: Time to BeReal! by Marianne Tambini

Who were the earliest streamers and what did it mean to live online as an artist and livestreamer in the early days of the internet? What can this question reveal about how we use the internet and share our everyday life moments today? Marianne Tambini explores two key women artists and the first lifecasters, Jennicam and Anacam, in an essay which traverses poetry, blogging, hypertext forms, the overshare, and the webcam as portal into the self, alongside multi-layered thinking around how women were and are embodied online today.

Women basically invented BeReal at the turn of the millennium. Some of the earliest people to broadcast their daily lives online were lifecasters, who set up webcams in their bedrooms to take a photo of them at frequent, regular intervals and upload it online. They challenged what it meant to live online in a time when image and text sharing was far more clunky than it is today, and pushed the boundaries of celebrity, reality, and control over one's own image and narrative.

Two of the most famous and earliest lifecasters were Jennicam, who seems to have invented the genre in 1996, and Anacam, arguably the most artistically experimental lifecaster, whose site was live from 1997 to 2009. Both their sites were independent (unlike many later lifecasters, who used host sites such as, the predecessor to twitch), both had upwards of 5 million views per day at their peak, and both produced text to go alongside their image feeds. Now, it is familiar to caption images online, often in a way which is not descriptive, but complements the image, explains it, and/or provokes a response of its own. However, the relationship of these lifecasters’ journals and poetry to the images was complex and new, mediating and narrativising the ‘reality’ conveyed by photographs.

For Ana Voog, the central idea behind her site was to use the internet as a democratic, even (she argues) anarchic way of sharing art. Voog recently wrote in Vice that ‘the nascent World Wide Web seemed to be a non-hierarchical, destabilizing system of power … a way for me to circumvent everything that stood in my way: a tool for the unheard’ (Voog, 2018). In the Independent, she described the internet in 1997 as ‘so much cooler, because people from all classes and races that you’d never meet in real life were interacting online… It felt so exciting, like everyone in the world was going to be connected’ (Saul, 2016). You could argue that people from all different walks of life are still able to interact online, but perhaps it doesn’t feel, and isn’t, in fact, as immediate as in the era of chatrooms with to lifecasters’ sites, where you would have ‘truck drivers and priests… German professors and twelve-year-old kids from South America’ (ibid.). You can still choose to seek out people who are very different and/or faraway from yourself, but you’re more likely to be interacting with people you know in real life, or who share many of the same algorithmically delineated preferences.Perhaps surprisingly, as the internet became more populated, our online circles may have become more insular.

Ana’s genre is described by youtuber Flundering Chipper as ‘digital psychedelia’ (2023). Her content was certainly surprising, including giving birth on camera, and her art was often abstract, taking stills of herself staring intensely into the camera and saturating them with bright, unexpected colours. To people unfamiliar with Ana’s style, her images might seem to mimic a hallucinatory experience. However, as much as Ana’s content was strange, it was meant to be totally faithful to reality, so psychedelic might not be the right term. At one stage, according to this article, her manifesto on the homepage of anacam was as follows:

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! […] 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? [...]  am your mirror [...] I like to push boundaries of what people think a woman is and isn’t [...] 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…

Popmatters ‘The New Cyborgs’, 2000

From the graphic metaphor of ‘having a speculum up your ass’ it seems that Voog felt that her realism had a lot to do with putting out a complete, and therefore real, depiction of herself. She had achieved some success as a musician prior to starting her cam and was trying to stop herself from being stereotyped. Jim Walsh, quoted in Pop Matters, wrote that Voog had said ‘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.’

Though Voog the artist and Ringley the college student seem like very different people, they both made attempts to broadcast a true image of reality. For Jenni, the project was more than a consciously artistic endeavour: it was an exercise in documentation and an experiment with emergent technology. The front page of her site, as of 2000, was a dictionary definition for jennicam, with the following two definitions: ‘1: A real-time look into the real life of a young woman’ and ‘2: an undramatized photographic diary for public viewing esp. via internet’ (Ringley, 2000). Her emphasis is on the stream as unmediated ‘reality’. In ‘Thoughts on Computers, Gender, and the Body Electric’ (1997), Lisa Gerrard writes, ‘the computer gives us new opportunities to be ourselves… when I logged on to JenniCam I found the site more playful than self-aggrandizing … my guess is that technology hasn’t changed [Jenni]: it’s merely given her a new tool for expressing and publicizing herself’. According to Christine Humphreys (1998), Ringley herself said ‘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’. Just as Voog saw the incompleteness of her media profile as compromising her realness and integrity, Ringley seems to want to avoid ‘dramatisation’ and its accompanying fakeness in her photo journal. Whether pursuing undramatic simplicity, or a recognition of complexity and multiplicity, these two lifecasters both seem convinced that what they are showing on their sites is very much the real thing.

At the dawn of the internet, both Voog and Ringley were drawing into consideration what ‘real life’ actually is, and how information and the image of reality can be transmitted. Before social media became a widespread phenomenon, to say that posting pictures of yourself was showcasing reality, may have been less controversial. In the 2016 interview with Ana I have already referenced (Saul 2016), she compares her site to Miley Cyrus’s instagram, and asks ‘what IS important ‘information' to save? Do I just save the ‘interesting’ pictures or do I show all the boring ones, too?’.

I think these are questions many of us who have documented parts of our lives have wrestled with, whether on Instagram, BeReal, Twitter, Snapchat or in the pages of a diary meant only for ourselves. What about myself is important or interesting? What am I compelled to preserve, define or make concrete? In sharing a constant stream of photographs, Ana and Jenni said, ‘here I am’ - providing an image of their Real Lives which was supposed to be complete, detailed, unedited and unembellished. However, examinations of these lifecasters, particularly those which emphasise their role as predecessors to streamers and camgirls, often overlook the role of text on these sites: mediating and narrativizing this ‘reality’.

Journals, blogs and poetry provided a supplement to the voyeuristic experience of consensually surveilling lifecasters. Journals were common, and a feature on Jenni’s site from its early days, providing a counterpart to the photo stream, and perhaps contributing to a more complete ‘reality’. However, considering that Jenni positioned herself in opposition to ‘people you see on TV’, and described her photo diary as crucially ‘undramatized’, it may be surprising that her poetry is often hyperbolic in tone. The poem ‘Emily and I’ is introduced as ‘an insult to [Jenni’s] teacher, with whom [she] did not get along well’. It is a parody of Emily Dickinson’s ‘479’ (‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’), and begins ‘Because I could not write for You-/I finally wrote for me-’. It has its comic moments and parodies Dickinson’s rhythm and unique style of capitalising certain words quite well, but reads as naive. Taking one of the most hauntingly calm poems ever written on the profound subject of death, and turning it into a screed against a critical teacher doesn’t quite ring true, and lacks self-awareness. However, not all of Jenni’s poetry reads this way.

Floating Point’ is a poem about growing up, sitting in a chair ‘Dangling, reaching, pointed toes’, but not touching the floor. Ringley uses varying line lengths to create pause and mimic the gap between the toe and floor which the poem meditates on. One stanza in another poem, ‘Mardi Fuck’ goes as follows

- oh god oh god oh god oh god is turning inside out and the world is melting down melting down melting down my fair lady and -

This poem is also somewhat jejune and hyperbolic, but has its own style and creativity, expressing something which Jenni clearly wanted to be a key aspect  of her online presence. While her photo journal was a faithful, intimate yet external look at the day-to-day, perhaps poetry allowed her to explore an inner life which did, at times, feel full of drama, and make a narrative for a daily reality which is sometimes, at least on a surface level, uninteresting.

This tension between what goes on on the outside, and what’s happening on the inside, was and is a key philosophical problem with image sharing online. Lisa Gerrard (1997) writes that, after the anonymity of the text-based early days of the internet, with webcams ‘The body was back’. This was perhaps a particularly significant thing for women, who had never been totally disembodied online, but now found themselves simultaneously praised and vilified for sharing images of themselves.

Bear Spirit Guide’ is an absurd short story by Voog in which, in a dream, the narrator is bribed to show her piercings to a man with a star in his eye, loses her head, and acquires a spirit guide in the form of a teddy bear. It is funny, disorientating, erotic and alienating at the same time.

my visual/written diary/art … the core of what i do. since it includes my best pictures of the day (anywhere from 10 to 100 pix a day!), u don't have to worry about missing anything cool! sometimes i also put in scans from cool stuff i've found around the house or outside, scans of my body, mp3s of my voice or my music or little movies i made! sometimes i'll even do so computer art and include it in there also. and i put in scans of old pictures of me and scans of diaries from when i was ten years old, it pretty amusing

Her light tone here seems to suggest a fairly random approach to what goes in an anagram, but they are sophisticated and deliberate pieces of art, which aim to provoke a reaction and share a certain mood. To return to Voog’s metaphor of the speculum, the body is an important part of the complete picture of reality, but it is the whole body, not just parts of it, and more than that as well. Voog’s cam, which shows her physical body, seems to be one way of broadcasting a life lived as art. Her writing and imagetext is another. This still seems radical now, but it was totally bewildering to the mainstream of the time.

In a TV interview on Vibe TV, filmed while Ana’s cam was running, the host keeps pressing the fact that Voog’s camera shows her ‘In the bedroom and in the shower’, while she emphasises that it also sees her dog and cat, and sees her ‘sitting at the computer… eating microwave dinners’. ‘The bedroom and the shower’, the interviewer says again. ‘You know how guys are, right?’ he wonders. He asks what her parents think. He concludes that she is ‘weird in a nice way’ but his tone is overall disapproving and bemused. Voog is well aware of this and takes it in her stride. Asked if the stream is art, she responds ‘when I eat a microwave dinner it is art’, and that she ‘can’t separate it all’ - everything she does, her music, artwork, poems and life, are part of the holistic work she is making.

In this radical abnegation of privacy about their inner and physical lives, these young women were able to find self-expression, and perhaps even sanctuary. Another lifecaster, Sunny Crittenden, has described her ‘radically vulnerable’ way of writing as ‘textibitionism’. She writes, ‘I don’t believe in having personal secrets because personal secrets can be used as leverage against you. That’s why I’ve always found it best to not have any and just lay it all out there.’

Similarly, Voog wrote in Vice (2018) 

Privacy is in the mind… For me, privacy is about one core feeling: safety. And the way I always struggled for safety was by being as transparent as possible … If anyone said or did anything to me that made me feel uncomfortable, it would be captured by my webcam, I surmised. Or I would write about it until all hours of the night in front of my audience until I felt either exhausted or satisfied. I didn’t care if people knew personal things about me or looked at my naked body. These things are transitory. It’s a photo of my body not my actual body, and I control the output and the gaze.

There were, as there always are, dangers associated with being a woman in the public eye. While being an online celebrity, to some extent, protected the lifecaster’s physical body, there were other kinds of attack. Humphreys (1998) describes one incident when ‘A hacker broke into Jennifer Ringley’s site and replaced all the images with images of dismembered corpses’. Ringley was also subject to overidentification and harassment. She said ‘the camera makes people think they know me, so they send me emails with their entire life’s story’.. Similarly, in the manifesto I shared earlier, Voog wrote that her site had a lot to do with projection. Contact from viewers certainly had the potential to be overwhelming, but was perhaps part of an understandable impulse to turn an  investment in a stranger’s life into a two-way street. While people clearly wanted to intervene in this reality they saw broadcasted, it seems that for Ringley, this contact was unwanted.

However, for some, lifecasting did become communal and connecting. Just as the camera provided a hard shell of protection, it also provided a safe way to be vulnerable and together. According to a post from Voog on reddit, she started a ‘universal sleep station’ where many different lifecasters would log in and sleep on cam. This seems to be one of her fondest memories of her lifecasting days. In the video essay linked previously, Flounderingchipper argues ‘…it was the sex and more. People were watching because they liked chatting with the lifecasters, writing themselves into the poetry of the internet person’s day to day life’. While this relationship is difficult to manage and can open up the possibility of harassment or stalking, some lifecasters, through sharing images and text with each other and with people around the world, seemed to tread the line between using the camera and modem’s distancing effect for safety and control, whilst maintaining something incredibly intimate.

On Facebook, Voog wrote recently that her cam helped her realise that ‘basic human nature needs to feel it is seen and heard’. She considers herself to have both provided and benefitted from this all important seeing and hearing relationship: ‘I realize I am not only the one being watched: I am the watcher. By this, I mean that because I have lived so transparently, I have gained my audience’s trust. They shared such personal things with me.’ This does not seem to be unwelcome, and the sharing is to some extent reciprocal. Voog seems to think that the internet has lost this potential, continuing, ‘Social media, in this age, gives us the illusion we are all being seen and heard. Yet it’s obvious that the underlying obstacle to this is the mega corporations who have no investment in such an endeavor and, indeed, actively discourage it.’

There is much more to be said about capital's interventions in the early internet, and about the transition from streaming as a hobby (and an expensive one at that) to streaming as work, as a way of making money or acquiring gifts. Ringley and Voog both began streaming in a context of artistic and technical innovation, and I think they succeeded to some extent in living and broadcasting ‘real life’ online, before the line between real life and online life had become quite so blurry.

The use of text, particularly creatively written text, contributed to the expansiveness  of the site's depiction of the steamer. It also helped to create a narrative out of the non-fictional events appearing on the screen, although not necessarily a coherent one. It was, a radical act of sharing - even if not always consciously - and held potential for reconciling the conflict between defending your material psychological and artistic self, and sharing its true version.


Gerrard, Lisa, ‘Thoughts on Computers, Gender, and the Body Electric’ (1997)

Humphreys, Christine ‘Behind Closed Doors’ ABC News (1998)

‘Textibitionism’, Sunny Crittenden

Walsh, Jim, “Pop Critique” The St. Paul Pioneer Press (1998)


Text: Marianne Tambini


Published: 08/03/2024


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