Once upon a time, seven million people watched everything I did, and this seemed perfectly normal.
My name is Ana Voog, and I’m a multimedia artist, researcher, and singer-songwriter. But you might know me as the woman behind anacam, a life-casting stream where I shared my personal life for 24 hours a day, every day, for 13 years. (The stream is now dead, and I broadcast now at AnaVoog.com.)
I launched anacam on August 22, 1997, and by the following year, seven million people watched anacam daily. The Internet had barely begun—Google hadn’t even been founded yet—but even then, the insatiable appetite to watch the intimate, mundane, obscene details of strangers’ lives online already existed.
I became very famous. I exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I had sex (stopping mid-way to order a pizza), and gave birth (sans pizza), on camera. All of this was made possible by now-defunct FTP webcam technology uploading one grainy image every three minutes, using a dial-up internet modem.
Despite the fact that I was one of the Internet’s earliest social media stars, blessedly, few people nowadays remember who I am. In retrospect, I now see that the reason I thought this was a normal way to exist was because of my now medically-diagnosed complex post-traumatic stress disorder. The anacam project was a long-chain event I constructed in order to help me make sense of the world.
I have an eccentric and resilient way of dealing with my suffering, for the most part. I turn it into art. When I feel pain, I have a tendency to dive into it headfirst and analyze the living crap out out it.
Back in 1997, I suffered from crippling agoraphobia, but longed to share my art with the widest audience possible. To me, the nascent World Wide Web seemed to be a non-hierarchical, destabilizing system of power that would allow me to achieve this aim. I thought that the Internet would be a way for me to circumvent everything that stood in my way: a tool for the unheard. We could speak out and completely bypass the hierarchical, patriarchal system in place to keep us silent. Or at least this is how things felt like they might be in 1997.
What did I learn from all those years spent broadcasting? Mostly, that the driving impetus of the collective Internet is an all-consuming desire to say “hi.” I first noticed this when I was in my chat room (then called IRC, or Internet relay chat). At least 75 people were in the chat at the time and at least 15 different countries were being represented. Back then, I was still a bit of a utopian idealist! I thought this would be an opportunity to reach out to all those countries, all at once. I wanted to talk to Russia, Brazil, Ecuador, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Australia, and beyond.
Let’s get all this bullshit clear and out of the way, I thought. Let’s melt all the toxic residue from the Cold War. But no one wanted this or seemed to understand what I was trying to do. “Wave to me!” “Do you see me? I see you!” was the unanimous cry I heard from my viewers. I realized then that basic human nature needs to feel it is seen and heard. In many ways, nothing has changed since then.
Social media, in this age, gives us the illusion we are all being seen and heard. Yet it’s obvious that the underlying obstacle to this is the mega corporations who have no investment in such an endeavor and, indeed, actively discourage it. Instead, we just over-share until everyone is completely numbed or in such a state of rage, despair, and hopelessness that social media literally makes people physically, mentally, and spiritually sick.
As anacam, I began to experience almost immediately the sort of online bullying that happens to so many women online today. Being a single woman speaking her mind—while being naked, to boot—was a huge taboo. People would tell me that I should know my place. I was stalked and harassed.
Back in 1997 I claimed “privacy is in the mind.” I still feel this is true. For me, privacy is about one core feeling: safety. And the way I always struggled for safety was by being as transparent as possible.
As a person who has been sexually assaulted numerous times, I never felt as safe as when i was documenting everything in my sight with my webcam. If anyone said or did anything to me that made me feel uncomfortable, it would be captured by my webcam, I surmised. Or I would write about it until all hours of the night in front of my audience until I felt either exhausted or satisfied.
I didn’t care if people knew personal things about me or looked at my naked body. These things are transitory. It’s a photo of my body not my actual body and I control the output and the gaze, I reasoned. I was determined to live a transparent life. “No better place to hide than in the open,” they say.
Many people have written about my work, but in my opinion, they ultimately fail to grasp what I was trying to do. I wasn’t an exhibitionist. I was an anarchist. I wanted to crush all the archetypes people held about me—like thinking I was a dumb blonde, for example—by slowly disintegrating them from within. If you think I’m dumb, I’ll show you that I’m smart, I thought.
It’s a difficult thing to distill a 13-year multimedia experiment from over 20 years ago and wrap it up with insight on where we are going today. But I can say that I have come through the other side of the kaleidoscope with more awareness, and I realize I am not only the one being watched: I am the watcher. By this, I mean that because I have lived so transparently, I have gained my audience’s trust. They shared such personal things with me. I have witnessed the secrets, desires, longings, dreams, and struggles of everyone from housewives to diplomats to truck drivers to FBI agents. And that, in part, has made my journey through this web worth it all.