The year was 1996. A 20-year-old student named Jennifer Ringley created a website called JenniCam, which automatically uploaded unedited stills from a camera attached to the computer in her dorm room at Dickinson College. The grainy black-and-white photos updated at a pace of one every three minutes, but that was enough to garner her a significant following. While Jenni initially shut off the system during private moments, she eventually began leaving it up 24/7, even going so far as to have sex on camera several times. Appearances on The Today Show and The Late Show with David Letterman only increased her profile, and a wave of other “cam girls” followed, including Ana Voog, who continually broadcast the events of her life via webcam for 12 years, including both the conception and the birth of her first child.
As technology advanced, the number of people who seemed interested in showing their lives to the world only increased, even though it was limited by the high cost of computers, cameras and bandwidth. Then in 2005 YouTube began offering anyone with an Internet connection the ability to publicly post video of themselves, though not in real time. YouTube has since become one of the cornerstones of the media landscape, and its inception is as good a marker as any of the moment when bandwidth costs became trivial. What’s perhaps more remarkable, though, given YouTube's massive scale, is that after some initial controversies, effective content restrictions and aggressive policing have kept the service almost entirely free of untoward content. You might find copyrighted material (temporarily), you could come across crass behavior (welcome to humanity)—but it’s unlikely you’ll find pornography there.
One year after YouTube was founded, a San Francisco techie named Justin Kan strapped a webcam to his head and started streaming out every moment of his life. Doing this required a complex setup that included a laptop in a backpack and other work-arounds, but Kan was an almost immediate sensation. By the fall, he and his cofounders had turned his site into Justin.tv, a service that gave anyone who wanted it the ability to live in public just like him.
Justin.tv was abused almost immediately, with users livestreaming first-run movies out of the theater and mobs of online creeps urging underage girls to take off their clothes (a few of whom, unfortunately, obliged). In a particularly unsettling incident in 2008, a 19-year-old committed suicide while broadcasting on Justin.tv. Which points up the fact that freedom, while wonderful in many ways, is not without its thorns. But a depressed or wild kid is not depressed or wild because he is given access to certain technologies. Troubled kids are a fact of life. They are also far from the norm. And cautionary tales, tragic though they may be, can provide actual lessons for those that come after.
As other competitors, such as Livestream, Ustream and Skype Qik, emerged to offer similar services with varying degrees of success, Justin.tv’s founders figured out what was driving the majority of their revenue, and it wasn’t anything remotely lewd. In early 2014 they started shutting down Justin.tv to focus on Twitch.tv, a site dedicated exclusively to letting its users stream video of themselves playing video games. It’s a heartening example of the freedoms these technologies afford being used for wholesome self-expression rather than to fulfill our worst nightmares. And while it's unlikely your teen will rake in the big bucks by strapping a webcam to her head, in the summer of 2014 retail giant Amazon purchased Twitch.tv for around $1 billion.