SAN FRANCISCO – Before there was reality television, there was a young college student with big dreams, Internet savvy and a video camera.
The combination became a pivotal moment in digital culture. But on Wednesday night, after seven years in cyberspace, Jennicam (search) is logging off.
In 1996, Jennifer Ringley (search) focused her camera lens on herself in her Harrisburg, Pa., dorm room as part of a class project. She never turned it off.
Ringley then moved the cameras to her Washington, D.C., apartment after college, letting legions of fans get a kick out of watching her day-to-day life — doing everything from cooking and studying to sleeping and having sex.
The economics major became the first ever "micro-celebrity," and as her Web site's traffic grew, she began charging visitors in order to pay for bandwidth.
These days, Ringley, who works at a nonprofit agency in San Francisco, ignores interview requests. There are reports that her nude, adult material ran afoul of her Internet payment-processing company's policies. But observers still tout Jennicam's influence on pop culture.
"She became a topic of discussion — you knew about Jennicam, our parents knew about Jennicam, the person you work with might know about Jennicam," said Rachel Leibrock of the Sacramento Bee. "And that's a really strong influence to have on American culture.
"Our culture became attuned to wanting to see people in this so-called real and unscripted way... before we tuned into "Big Brother" and "Survivor"... she really made us more comfortable watching people like that on the screen."
Added Lee Mandel (search), CEO of Internet dating service MatchedUp.com: "I was very skeptical about going online and finding a date online. Then I saw her Web site and I saw people are willing to display themselves publicly online. Why not use the Internet to find a date? And then I said, 'Let's start MatchedUp.com.'"
For many, Jennicam was a fresh alternative to packaged entertainment seen on television — a life unscripted and unpredictable. But before long, as the world now knows, Americans wanted to see people in this unfiltered way even more. Within a few years, reality TV shows would win huge ratings.