Ch 1: A Brief History of Webcam Culture

The webcam was first developed in 1991 at Cambridge University and captured periodic pictures of a coffee pot (Cade). The technology was then refined and released commercially in 1994 as the QuickCam, a PC-compatible camera that cost around $100 at the time (Cade). Two years later, the first prominent webcam series was created when 19-year-old Jennifer Ringley decided to point the webcam, which had previously been largely directed towards static objects like coffee pots or windowpanes, towards herself (Laxon). She called her web series JenniCam. At it’s most popular, it is speculated that JenniCam brought in over 100 million viewers a week, but since JenniCam emerged out of the freshly developed Web and was the first of it’s kind, no one thought to quantify the exact numerical significance of Ringley’s broadcast (Laxon). Still, JenniCam became a cultural phenomenon and Ringley was featured on prominent mainstream shows like The Today Show, The Late Show with David Letterman, and World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and in 2008 JenniCam was listed as one of CNET’s greatest defunct websites in history (Laxon). Ringley finally shut down JenniCam in 2003 due to PayPal’s anti-nudity clause. JenniCam broadcasted an unfiltered, unedited continuous stream of her life that included both titillating moments, such as when she was in the nude or engaged in sexual activity, as well as boring ones, like sitting in front of her computer and quietly working towards her economics degree. This type of straightforward and uninterrupted broadcast has since become known as “lifecasting.” The philosophy behind lifecasting is to capture the subject’s existence as close to his or her natural lived reality. The webcam or camera is supposed to be completely ignored and performativity is highly frowned upon. Those who hold to the strictest beliefs of lifecasting even disparage acknowledging the audience or making eye contact with the webcam (Guyunn). Lifecasting remained popular throughout the late 90s to early 2000s, attracting numerous users. Lifecasting also found an audience in mainstream media, particularly television, through the rise of reality television shows like Big Brother, which was created in 1999 and revolved around several people who are placed in a house full of hidden cameras. Though lifecasting never properly translated to the big screen, the aesthetics of webcams and lifecasting were also brought to the movies through the use of shaky first-person camera perspectives and extensive character narrative that seems to be happening in real-time in films like The Blair Witch Project, which was released in 1999. Elements of lifecasting also became, and remained prominent in various adult entertainment websites. Websites like MyFreeCams.com and Chaturbate.com offer live strip shows using webcam technology, and carries a similar aesthetic of unfiltered liveness. Though lifecasting prided itself on it’s grassroots beginnings and its unedited process, it too was being repurposed by capitalistic influences and repacked as commercial goods. Perhaps tellingly, these commercial reiterations of the lifecasting practice and aesthetic have lasted much longer than the popularity of lifecasting itself. Most single-user lifecasting channels like JenniCam ended in the early 2000s, while Big Brother is coming back for its 17th season in 2015 (CBS), and point-of-view camera movies like Paranormal Activity, released in 2007, grossed nearly $108 million and has spawned four other sequels (Box Office Mojo). The cultural and financial success of Ringley helped bring webcam culture to prominence, and by the late 1990s, many users were turning to the webcam with the hopes of self-employment. One user in particular was interested in the new economic possibilities of webcam culture. Mitch Maddox, who legally changed his name to DotComGuy in 2000, set out to stay within his house for an entire year, only living off what he could purchase on the Internet. Moreover, he wanted to earn a living of $98,000 that year through online endorsements and sponsorships. Users were allowed to donate to his cause but, more importantly, DotComGuy reasoned that the more people that visited his site, the more online sponsorship he would get from companies hoping to increase their brand visibility. However, the timing was off as the website was launched shortly before the dot.com crash of 2000, and DotComGuy was unable to make any profits off of the year he spent online. Despite the quick rise in popularity in the late 1990s, by the early 2000’s it seemed as if webcam culture would just become yet another small niche pocket of the Internet. This was the scene that YouTube stepped into when it was created in 2005. At first, YouTube seemed to be yet another video sharing website—of which there were a few by 2005. The only difference between YouTube and other video sharing websites or features was that it focused on the ease of participation. According to a popular story, the idea for YouTube was created after the three co-creators, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jarid Karem, had a difficult time sharing a video shot at a dinner party (Cloud). Though the veracity of the story is undetermined, YouTube was created with user contribution in mind. From the very beginning YouTube possessed a very low barrier to entry; all users had to do was create an account and then they could immediately begin uploading videos to their “channels”—a webpage created under their user that displayed all previously uploaded videos. The videos uploaded were personal and intended for an audience. Some were simply un-narrated videos of interesting or remarkable things that a person had seen, but some videos were of the user talking to an imaginary audience and adding their own narration to the spectacle near them.

The first video shared on YouTube was called “Me at the Zoo,” and was uploaded by co-creator Jarid Karem. The video is only 19 seconds long, but within that span of time Karem stares straight at the camera, and thus his virtual audience, and tells them what he thinks are cool about elephants at the zoo. However, it is important to note that it is Karem at the center of the frame, and the few elephants that are visible wander in and out of frame, and are largely obscured by Karem’s head. Though Karem talks of elephants, it seems that the one the camera is studying is him. Since Karem’s first video, YouTube has produced a variety of personalities who offer similarly intimate and unusual content on their channels. The first channel to reach full-fledged “YouTube popularity” was Smosh, which offered comedic videos from then 18-year-olds Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla. Their lip-synch parody video “Pokémon Theme Music Video” was released on YouTube November 2005, and quickly became the most viewed video on YouTube with 24.7 million views (Dreier). The video featured the two 18-year-olds singing along to silly lyrics and laughing with each other, and remained as YouTube’s most watched video for six months until The Pokémon Company had the video removed on the grounds of copyright infringement. Smosh’s success demonstrated two things about YouTube: first, that much of YouTube’s audience would be young, and secondly, that YouTube would offer exposure for individualistic, and often silly, content. As YouTube developed, so too did the culture of video blogging, or, as it is better known, “vlogging.” In many ways vlogging is similar to lifecasting in that it features one or multiple subjects capturing his or her day. However, unlike lifecasting, vlogging has evolved to feature extensive narrativization and editing and the camera used, unlike the webcam or hidden camera commonly used for lifecasting, is constantly being held and pointed at the subject by the subject. As such, both the audience and the subject never ignore the camera. Frequently vlogs will feature strangers staring into or shielding their faces from the camera, or vloggers getting asked stop filming in certain venues.

A variety of vlogs exist, but one thing that unites most of them is that they are largely personal. Vlogs tend to feature the YouTuber as he or she navigates his or her day. Therefore, though there are many possibilities of what a vlog may cover—the YouTuber as he or she edits videos, or runs groceries, or prepares for a date, or attends a movie premiere—the form is largely the same. Oftentimes, popular YouTube personalities, or “YouTubers,” who create content centered on other topics will sporadically release vlogs on their main channels or they will create a spin-off channel for vlogs alone. Audience members who are fans of a YouTuber’s original content may look towards the YouTuber’s vlog to stay updated with the YouTuber’s day-to-day, or to get acquainted with the YouTuber’s intimate friends, or to watch the YouTuber’s backstage production of his or her videos. Many popular YouTubers also exclusively upload daily vlogs. Many of the daily vlogging channels tend to be family-run and include cute children growing up. Since vlogging culture has migrated and largely developed within the confines of YouTube, vlogging is never live. Instead, it is a five-minute to hour-long edited version of the YouTuber’s day. As a result, I believe that the appeal of vlogs differ from lifecasting. Unlike lifecasting, the direct address of the YouTuber as well as the acknowledgement of strangers makes it difficult for audiences to maintain the belief that they are watching an uninterrupted or “pure” reality; the act of vlogging alone changes the experiences of the subject’s day. As such, the pleasure can no longer be purely voyeuristic. Audience members are no longer spying on the YouTuber; he or she knows that the audience is there and has purposefully made a space. Even the vlogger’s physical reality—camera held in front of him or herself, in his or her own hand—acknowledges the presence of another person. However, perhaps this physicality and acknowledgement allows audiences to displace their perspective onto the object so that viewers are no longer looking in, but walking along. As such, a newfound intimacy can be created between audience and subject through the use of the vlog.

For example, in YouTuber Zoe Sugg’s vlog, “Sometimes It All Gets A Bit Too Much,” physical markers, like her headboard behind her, signify that she is occupying her bedroom. The private space combined with Sugg’s direct narration to the camera and her obvious physical distress all create a sense of deep intimacy that seems to extend beyond what one may see in a person’s mediated performance of privacy or private self. Sugg herself even questions why she is filming the vlog and in her disclaimer establishes the video to be irregular from most videos on YouTube, and her normal performance. At first, this seems as if Sugg is exposing the disjuncture between her mediated self, and her lived self. However, by recording and uploading this moment, the video also inadvertently establishes Sugg as more authentic than other vloggers which subsequently increases the intimacy that viewers will feel with Sugg, and her channel. In turn, this increases Sugg’s popularity which results in additional social and capital rewards, and ends up economizing perhaps a genuinely vulnerable moment. The draw of Sugg’s vulnerability and subsequent intimacy is directly reflected in the video’s viewership, as it drew in more than 3.7 million viewers, and is Sugg’s most popular vlog to date, with many viewers also sharing their own struggles with depression or anxiety in the comment section. Since YouTube’s creation in 2005, the website has grown rapidly. In 2006, only one year after it’s conception, Google purchased the website for $1.65 billion. Since then, the website has grown increasingly popular, and according to Alexa ratings is now the third most visited website both within the United States and globally. Though Google is not forthcoming about Youtube’s revenue, YouTube statistics does reveal that around 300 minutes of video are uploaded to the site every minute, and that the number of hours people are watching Youtube has increased by 50% every year since it’s creation (YouTube). 2012 estimates place the company’s revenue at $3.6 billion dollars, with the primary share of the revenue being comprised of advertising fees (Johnson). However, despite the extensive audience that YouTube draws in, James Dern, a YouTube software engineer revealed in a blog post that 30% of uploaded videos are responsible for 99% of the audience numbers (Whitelaw). As such, YouTube has privileged users who draw large audiences in a variety of ways, such as launching YouTube Spaces, which are physical houses in New York, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, and Sao Paolo that are made available to YouTubers who have accumulated over 5 million views (YouTube). Consequently, being a popular or frequently watched YouTuber has become a profitable business. Currently, the most popular YouTuber is Sweden-based video game reviewer PewDiePie, who has amassed 23.9 million viewers and 3.69 billion views. As of 2014, it is estimated that he earned around $8.47 million dollars after YouTube’s 45% cut (Jacobs). But beyond YouTube itself, many YouTubers find commercial success by branching out into mainstream or “traditional” media. Within the last two years, many YouTubers have begun releasing books, such as My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking, and Going with Your Gut by Hannah Hart, better known by her online handle My Drunk Kitchen, and The Pointless Book by Alfie Deyes, better known by his online handle Pointless Blog (Gutelle). Another subset of self-help or tutorial gurus have found success by creating their own products. For example, popular YouTuber Michelle Phan began uploading makeup tutorials in 2006, and has since accumulated 7.6 million viewers. Since then, Phan has gone on to launch her own cosmetics line, Em Cosmetics with L’Oreal, and has a launched a monthly make-up delivery service of “glam bags.” In 2014, it was revealed that Phan’s company alone has an $84 million sales rate (Bowles). Webcam culture has been constantly evolving since the initial technology was developed in 1991. The unprecedented popularity of YouTube has made webcam culture more cohesive and uniform. Perhaps as a result, webcam culture has slowly evolved to become more edited, more narrativized, and more clearly commercialized than the ideals of closely representing reality embodied in lifecasting. A result of the new economics of YouTube and webcam culture may be a very different mediation of the private sphere, and subsequently, a different understanding of privacy. – Works Cited “Big Brother Renewed.” CBS. CBS, n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Bowles, Nellie. “Michelle Phan: From YouTube Star to $84 Million Startup Founder.” Recode. Recode, 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Cade, DL. “The First Webcam Was Invented to Check Coffee Levels Without Getting Up.” PetaPixel RSS. N.p., 03 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Cloud, John. “The YouTube Gurus.” Time. Time Inc., 25 Dec. 2006. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Dreier, Troy. “Smosh: YouTube Gods and Unlikely Online Video Superstars – Streaming Media Magazine.” Streaming Media. Streaming Media Magazine, 04 Oct. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Gutelle, Sam. “IJustine, Shane Dawson, Other UTA Clients Get Their Own Book Deals.” Tubefilter. Tubefilter, 22 May 2014. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Jawed. “Me at the zoo.” YouTube. YouTube, 23 Apr. 2005, Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Jacobs, Harrison. “The Richest YouTube Stars.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Johnson, James. “YouTube To Earn $3.6 Billion In 2012, Analyst Predicts.” The Inquisitr News. N.p., 24 June 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Laxon, Nate. “The Greatest Defunct Web Sites and Dotcom Disasters.” CNET. N.p., 5 June 2008. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. MoreZoella. “Sometimes It All Gets A Bit Too Much.” YouTube. YouTube, 22 Jun. 2014. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. “Paranormal Activity.” Box Office Mojo. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. PewDiePie. “A DAY WITH PEWDIEPIE! (Vlog).” YouTube. YouTube, Nov. 3, 2012, Web. 23 Apr. 2015. Whitelaw, Ben. “Almost All YouTube Views Come from Just 30% of Films.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. “YouTube Press.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

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