Undergraduate Thesis
by Katharine Wimett
ArtEZ hogeschool voor
de kunsten



to be watched and to watch yourself being watched

In July 1998, a young Meredith Doeksen appeared on the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) talk-show program Net Café in an episode titled “Cyber Chats.” During the interview, she explained a new form of video conferencing technology called CU-SeeMe. Developed at Cornell University, Doeksen was connecting with others via live refreshing images coupled with instant messaging. With her CU-SeeMe account embedded on her website concretecam.simplenet.com Doeksen was creating an online community she knew personally. At one point, the interviewer suggests Doeksen had become so well known that she was a CU-SeeMe celebrity. Doeksen's appearance on <em>Net Café</em>

Click on footnote images to view mentioned sources

This was a young woman, online, broadcasting herself in the hope of connecting with others. After the interview and at some point in 1998, Doeksen purchased and transferred her personal site to the domain: camgirl.com. Archived pages of Doeksen's original site

Click on the image of Doeksen to view the camgirl.com timeline

Doeksen was not alone in identifying as a camgirl, during the late 1990s she was part of a large trend of young women broadcasting live online. Looking back on the publically archived pages of camgirl.com, when it was Doeksen’s personal site, one could say that she was inspired by the very first camgirl, Jennifer Ringley. Jennifer of JenniCam (1996–2003) saw her broadcast as a kind of social experiment to live stream 24/7. Ringley’s live broadcast was groundbreaking, as the first woman or for that matter person, to be live online for a continuous amount of time. Ringley in her dorm room at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania during her first days of camming, Archived pages of Ringley's original site

As she described in an interview with David Letterman in 1998 she saw nothing odd about her experiment because we turn on the TV to view animals in “wild America” but for some reason wanting to watch people eating and sleeping was considered “sick and perverse.” Ringley's appearance on David Letterman

Defined in today’s context, a camgirl or webcam model as they are more often referred to, is typically a female performer who sells a variety of services (exotic dance masturbation shows) to online customers.1 These performances are captured by a webcam and broadcast live on a service website such as camgirl.com. This being the same domain once owned by Doeksen however, in 2016 she sold the camgirl.com domain to ICF Technology, a live streaming service.

While a webcam model performs and makes conversation in a public chat room customers can send her tips (tokens bought from the camming site.) And in a private chat room, a one-on-one videoconference, the customer often pays per minute for a show. Prostitution, setting up a face-to-face meeting for paid sex to occur, is prohibited on camming websites, as it is illegal in the majority of the United States. Webcam modeling is intended to remain within the World Wide Web.

Camgirls like Ringley and Doeksen, of this early trend were trailblazers of the World Wide Web: coding their own websites, enabling live streams of images from their personal spaces and essentially setting up social networks before the standardized forms of Myspace and Facebook came into existence. These women often amassed popularity far greater than social network celebrities and influencers of today. In 1998, camgirl Ana Voog of anacam (1997–2009) who saw her camming as part of her art, had seven million people watching her daily, in other words, 1 out of 20 of the entire world’s online population was watching Ana’s bedroom, everyday.2

In comparing early camgirls to today’s webcam models, it is important to note that these women of the late 1990s to early 2000s sometimes featured nudity and sex in their broadcasts, and some later chose to set up paid sites for more viewing access. However, erotica and payment were not so directly linked as today’s virtual rooms and tipping system. For webcam models of today, camming is a form of sex work. Whereas for the first camgirls the original intention for most was to broadcast their lives so that their audience becomes an engaged community. The label of camgirl evolved from encompassing multiple possibilities to a purely sexualized commercial role. However, for camgirls of the past and present elements of empowerment and exploitation have always existed along with the desire to be authentic and gain celebrity.

The first camgirl, Jennifer Ringley

Current webcam model and artist, Lindsay Dye

Instagram artist and modern-day camgirl, Arvida Byström

Today, I think another version of the camgirl exists. In the form of women artists who use Instagram and other social media platforms to “broadcast” their lives. In a methodical way these artists attempt to critically mirror society’s stereotypical images of women either in the reverse or in a more heightened form. This usually involves embracing or rejecting Western beauty standards, for instance the use or non-use of facial makeup. These women do not self-describe as camgirls, but they document themselves, usually in the form of self-portraiture, on a near daily basis. I am speaking of the artists: Molly Soda, Signe Pierce, Alexandra Marzella and Arvida Byström. These women and others are consistently included in the current conversation of female digital identity within the art world. The majority of them have been featured in the recent exhibition Virtual Normality Women Net Artists 2.0. (2018).

The theories I use as my feminist framework involve questions of neoliberal feminism, how technology and capitalism have come to form a new era in which a multiplicity of feminisms exist. The authors I cite for these theories include: Rosalind Gill, a professor of sociology who is described as a feminist cultural theorist. Hester Baer, also a professor, whose research interests focus on gender and sexuality in film and media, as well as, historical and contemporary feminisms. Additionally Catherine Rottenberg, a professor of foreign literatures and linguistics, as well as, gender studies.

Informing my knowledge of the first camgirls is the writing of Theresa Sneft and Katherine Bzura. Sneft authored Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks (2008), which is a comprehensive analysis of early camgirls, she herself experimenting with camming. Currently Sneft is the senior lecturer in Social Media at Macquarie University with previous teaching engagements at New York University. While writer Angela Jones informs my understanding of webcam models of today in the context of sex work. Jones has a background in sociology and teaches sociology and anthropology, as well as, women, gender, and sexuality studies.

What connects camgirls of the past and present is that their position as women online has always been complicated by the intersections of pornography, commercialization and capitalism. What is feminist about being a camgirl? Considering art as social commentary these women attempt to use their digital identity as critique, but I have concerns about the cycle of commercialization within capitalism. In that critiques of its effects on society are then appropriated by advertising often times taking advantage of these voices. For instance, the uptake of popular feminism by clothing brands in order to sell merchandise. How can women artists form a critical yet productive relationship with their digital identity? What kind of gender performativity goes into being a camgirl of any time, or for that matter simply a woman online creating art? In a larger sense, how do we create work about our identity that is not exploitative or enacted in exclusivity?


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