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Volume 11, No. 1February 2001
IN 1996, A STUDENT NAMED Jennifer Kaye Ringley positioned a digital camera to monitor her dormitory room at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania; she then piped the flow of images (refreshed every three minutes) to a Web site, thus creating a Web vérité documentary about her daily life. The rest is history: The commercial "Jennicam" site now receives five million hits per day and has made Ringley a star (or at least a guest on The Late Show With David Letterman). She has countless imitators, thanks in part to the fact that computer packages now sometimes include a digital camera, along with the usual tools and toys. Never has the opposition between public and private been easier to deconstruct.
So it wasn't exactly a pioneering move for Theresa Senft, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, to install a Webcam in her Brooklyn apartment last year. Yet viewing the "TerriCam" on her Web site can be a novel exercise in giddy self-reflexivity. A voyeur often finds Senft at the keyboard writing her dissertationwhich has the working title "Homecam Heroines: Gender, Celebrity, and Auto-Performance on the World Wide Web."
Discussing her work, Senft hyperlinks ideas and anecdotes with a certain nonlinear enthusiasm. Research into Webcamming takes her beyond what she calls "old-school Internet studies," a somewhat jarring phrase given that Senft, at thirty-five, is herself part of that establishment. Co-author of History of the Internet: A Chronology, 1843-Present (ABC-Clio Publications)named one of the best research texts of 1999 by the American Library AssociationSenft also helped edit a best-selling issue of the journal Women and Performance devoted to sexuality and cyberspace. Nor is her concern with that theme strictly theoretical: Besides having worked as a phone-sex operator, Senft has been a virtual dominatrix in the America Online forum "Obey Me."
The cyberculture of yesteryear, Senft notes, consisted of people interacting via keyboards. Back in the days when on-line communities such as MUDs and MOOs were cutting edge, Net theorists concentrated on how users could construct their on-line identities, gender most emphatically included, through fantasy and role playing. The Webcam, though, is a visual medium. And its aestheticso far, anywayis profoundly realistic. Today's technology permits the uncensored, spontaneous, real-time broadcasting of private life. In her dissertation proposal, Senft calls home-camming "a form of mediatized autobiographical performance." She adds, "Questions of liveness, authenticity, and presence are foregrounded."
All the more so, Senft contends, when the Webcam "star" is a woman. Indeed, Webcamming creates an entirely new sort of female performer. Unlike traditional actresses and singers, the women being auto-paparazzied on-line fascinate viewers simply by going about their everyday lives. Is this exhibitionismor the vanguard of feminist cultural practice? Senft raises the question without ever quite answering it. But she does quote a plaintive remark by "Jennicam" star Ringley: "Without the camera I probably would have always been a nobody."
Whatever its implications for the study of celebrity (or narcissism, for that matter), Webcam broadcasting defies the usual categories applied to the media. Cinematic theory has dealt exhaustively with the question of how the "gaze" operates in film. And in television studies, researchers refer to the "glance," in keeping with Raymond Williams's observation that television often serves as the background to ordinary life (something you leave on and look at while doing other things). Alluding to these notions but tweaking them a bit, Senft suggests that the relevant term for Webcam watching is "grab": The bored viewer will "grab" a quick look at another individual's no-longer-private life. With its aggressive and almost tactile connotations, the "grab," according to Senft, carries suggestive overtones of life under late phallocentric capitalism. After all, "grab" is something a sexual harasser does to an ass. But "grab" is also what a hurried consumer does to the Extreme Taco Meal Deal at a fast-food restaurant.
So does "grab" imply a criticism of Webcam aesthetics as a scopic regime of sexist aggression and minimal cultural nourishment? Or is Senft championing the Webcam viewer as an active maker of meaning? Both, possibly. Debate over such matters is bound to intensify as the field of on-line studies grows. As it shows every sign of doing, to judge by the emergence of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), which describes itself as "an interdisciplinary and interprofessional organization for promotion of scholarly and critical research into the social, cultural, political, economic, and aesthetic aspects of the Internet." At the association's inception in 1998, organizers thought they would be lucky to attract a few dozen interested colleagues. Following the first AoIR conference this September, membership stood at about five hundred.
According to AoIR founder Steve Jones, head of the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Senft's work anticipates future directions for scholarship in the field. "It's clear that Webcamming will be a routine part of how we represent ourselves in virtuality," Jones says. "There's already videoconferencing. Families use Webcams to keep in touch while they travel, and some day-care centers have put themselves on-line." Even the investment guru George Gilder's recent book Telecosm suggests that high-bandwidth optic networking is the next big profitable development on the Internet.
Senft's dissertation is scheduled to appear as one of the first titles in Digital Formations, a forthcoming series of monographs that Jones is editing for the academic publisher Peter Lang. Those who find paper-and-ink books too anachronistic can read Senft's scholarly writings on-line at her Web site. And be sure to sneak a peek at her apartment while you're there.
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