They don’t just look, they also post their deep opinions: “MILLIE IS A HONEY AND DAMN SEXXIE.” “You’re really pretty, Millie. Ever thought about being a model?” “Has anyone ever told u u kinda look like leelee sobieski?” Apparently someone has.
Most of Millie’s gallery photos are tame by anyone’s standards. Unless you happen to stumble upon the shots in the folder labeled “Sexy.” You don’t have to be a prude to notice that the images of Millie with her pants hiked dangerously low, or the close-up of her thinly clothed torso, are pretty dicey.
Why would a young girl with so much going for her want to show off her body to the Net’s swarming hordes? Because Millie is what’s known on the Net as a cam girl. That is, she’s a young girl who, with the aid of a Web cam, a computer, and a high-speed connection, beams her (often scantily clad) image out to people (okay, men) around the Net.
You can’t exactly call it soft porn, but you can’t exactly call it something else, either. On the one hand, she doesn’t collect money from her “friends.” On the other, the best way to become her friend is to buy her something she wants.
“I do think pop culture has an effect on teens,” she says in a telephone interview. “Britney and Christina are doing their own thing, and I think that’s great. If they feel the need to show off their body to get somewhere, then so be it.”
“Then so be it” may very well be the mantra of Millie and the growing legion of cam girls. Eighteen-year-old Leslie has a link to a $350 camera and writes on her site:
“Who’s going to be my forever sweetheart and get this for me? I need it a lot, I’ll even snail mail you piccies or something lame like that. Come on. PLEASE?!”
So far, nobody has taken Leslie up on her offer, but she did get a copy of the Lords of Acid album Farstuckers from a fan.
“I love it, thank you so much,” she posts. “You made my day!” She was even happier when another fan sent her a live pet tarantula in the mail.
Who are these “fans,” these patrons of online teen sirens? They’re men who are attracted by the idea that the girls are the real deal — that they can’t fake who they are. The old adage “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” is just dead wrong here.
“The Web cam makes me more realistic, I think,” says Pamela, a 18-year-old cam girl. “It’s obvious I’m not some crazy 50-year-old guy getting his jollies off pretending to be a cute little girl.”
For obvious reasons, few men are inclined to chat with a reporter about their gifts to teen girls. So I decided to fulfill a few Wish List requests myself. Posing as a fan, I bought a My Little Pony T-shirt for one cam girl and a video of Big for another. Neither girl replied to my e-mails asking if they liked their gifts, but the Big recipient did post a picture of herself holding up the video. In sum: a nice clean transaction.
Now meet Natalie. Or better yet, don’t meet her, just buy her an RCA CC9370 AutoShot compact digital camcorder ($450). If you do, this 18-year-old girl from a small Kentucky town “will love you forever.” Or so she says on the link from her site to her Amazon Wish List. (Hint: She’d probably settle for the book Girl Director: A How-To Guide for the First-Time, Flat-Broke Film & Video Maker.) But do it quick, because Natalie hasn’t been having the best luck of late, judging from the nasty messages posted to her guestbook:
“Did I mention that you’re the 2nd ugliest girl I’ve seen in my life?” and “Your site SUCKS ass because of your f—ing brutal WISH list, you ain’t even good-looking and yet you think people are just going to ship you that stuff?”
Natalie isn’t shy about how she feels about these tirades: “WAAAAAAAAAHHH people don’t like me because I’m 14 and I don’t know anything and I’m ugly and I have a huge Wish List and other people are stupid and I’m honest about wanting to whore my site!!! I’m a whore and you’ve hurt my feelings!”
The brutal truth of the attention economy is that it’s one in which only the most beautiful (or outrageous) cam girls can hope to win fans and fill their virtual shopping carts. If they want to have any chance on the cam portals (Web sites that display dozens of live cam girl images simultaneously, ranked by popularity), cam girls need to put on their very best show.
Are girls really so desperate for a bar of Burt’s Bees peppermint soap that they’re willing to be pegged Cam Whores? The truth is most cam girls are as interested in garnering attention as they are in gathering Wish List merchandise or PayPal “donations.” Leslie says having fans “makes me feel good about myself. Whether it’s someone who says how pretty they think I am, or even just someone who says, ‘You’re cool, Leslie,’ it means a lot to me.”
In his book, The Soul in Cyberspace, Douglas Groothuis writes:
Whether these young ladies are online whores, teen hustlers, or savvy young businesswomen remains to be seen. What’s clear is that Natalie, Leslie, Millie, and thousands of other teenage girls are using technology to take girl power to a wild and scary new place.
They are arguably the spawn of a Web designer and programmer named Jennifer Ringley, who launched JenniCam in 1996 and remains one of the few purely online celebrities. Ringley’s site, which is still running (though she’s reached the positively geriatric age of 25), provides paying viewers an open window into nearly every aspect of her personal life.
If Ringley’s technology- fortified exhibitionism was regarded as an aberration when she launched, she’s now considered a pioneer who staked the original claim on the now-teeming cam girl nation. Ringley’s narcissism was accidentally transformed into a combination of performance art and small business.
Today’s cam girls are much more deliberate, not to mention up-front, about what they’re after. “Who wouldn’t want people you don’t even know being all nice and treating you like you are something special?” Millie asks. “I remember one girl telling me she looks up to me as a role model. That blew me away.”