In 1998 this webcam woman was the most famous person online

Ana Voog's webcam project – anacam – was watched by millions worldwide. Here, the original cam girl talks fame, performance and what it’s like to have invented the idea of sharing your whole life way before social media

On August 22 1997, Ana Voog launched anacam ­– a webcam project that uploaded an image every few minutes of whatever Ana was doing at that point in her life. Sleeping. Eating dinner. Fucking. Later, Ana would conceive and birth her child, live on screen. Ana opened up her bedroom to the world – and the world was watching.

Ana Voog quickly found fame. By 1998, seven million people were watching anacam a day. To put that number into context for you, in 1998 the total number of Internet users ­– globally ­– was 147 million. One out of 20 of the entire world’s online population was watching Ana’s bedroom, every day.

We often write about the curse of modern celebrity, and how ill equipped today’s stars are to cope with the downsides of fame. But Ana’s fame eclipsed that of today’s social media stars. Kendall Jenner currently has 47 million Instagram followers, out of a total Internet user base of 3 billion people. To achieve Ana’s level of Internet celebrity, and have 1 in 20 people following her life online, Kendall would need to add 103 million followers. Which is a tall order, even for a well-connected member of the Kardashian clan.

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Ana was the Internet’s own home girl, achieving a level of fame matched only by fellow cam-girl Jennifer Ringley, whose JenniCam created the phenomenon that we now call life-casting. At the height of her fame, Ana had stalkers waiting outside her house, death threats – Warren Beatty even watched her having sex with her ex-boyfriend live on camera, stopping halfway through to order a pizza before getting down to more love-making. 

Tracking down Ana online is like disappearing down a digital rabbit hole. Ana considers herself to be a performance artist, and she went on to exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And while the Anacam project ran for twelve years in total, numerous other splinter sites are on the web. Here is Ana’s Vimeo, featuring videos from 1997 up until the present day. Here’s a link to her updated anacam site (the original has fallen into disrepair). Here’s her Facebook. Here’s where she sells her freeform crochet hats. If you wanted to, you could stitch all these sites together in a loose recreation of almost every day of Ana’s life since 1997. Hers is truly a life lived online – and a performance which has yet to end.

Lifecasters like Jenni and Ana broadcast their lives, continuously, using modems and now-defunct FTP webcams. A single image would take three minutes to upload using a dial-up Internet connection. They shared their lives via the Internet two decades before Twitter was founded; before we began to compulsively share anything and everything we do and think online.

Curiously, in the male-dominated tech world, these early pioneers were women. Jenni, uncomfortable with her fame, gave interviews a few years ago announcing her intention to disappear from public life, and has stayed true to her word. Ana also hung up her webcam in 2009, and has since lived a semi-secluded life in rural Minnesota. At Dazed’s request, she’s granted us an exclusive interview to talk about fame, social media, modern celebrity and what it means to have been the Internet’s own home girl.

As Ana herself says on the original anacam website: welcome to the #voog mothership.

Hi Ana, thanks for talking to us. When you started anacam in 1997, did you ever imagine what the Internet would become?

Ana Voog: I actually envisaged a completely different Internet to the one we have now. The Internet back then was so much cooler, because people from all classes and races that you’d never meet in real life were interacting online. I had a chatroom, and there would be truck drivers and priests in there, German professors and twelve-year-old kids from South America. It felt so exciting, like everyone in the world was going to be connected. You could really feel it. Now, there’s the Tumblr people; the Instagram people, and everyone’s been segregated into their little sections. But back in 1997, it was so inclusive. I really miss that.

The original Lifecasters – like you and Jenni ­– predicted social media as we now know it. Does it feel weird to know you were doing something two decades ago which everyone else does now?

Ana Voog: Anacam was like the first Facebook or Instagram, definitely, but I was doing everything manually. Now you can just tweet something or share it, and it’s so simple. People take it for granted. Back then the Internet was so slow – it would take two minutes to upload a 240 by 320 pixel photo. Line by line, like an old printer. And all anyone ever wanted was for me to wave at them on the camera. They'd always say that, “wave at me, can you see me?” It was about people connecting, you know. It was so exciting. 

Things got really crazy for you in the late 1990s. How did you deal with that?

Ana Voog: It was insane, a trippy time in my life. There were 7 million people watching me every day. I was like the Miley Cyrus of the Internet, only bigger than Miley. People were tracking me down. The Truman Show had just come out, and people were just obsessed. I still broadcast my life now, but only like three people watch it! They’re my hardcore fans. It’s been so interesting to go from being so so big, to so so small. The whole journey of it.

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What do you think about the modern generation of social media stars?

Ana Voog: I’m watching the new generation deal with their Internet fame. Seeing how people misinterpret what they’re saying, and all the hate they get, and the love, and the rejection. I see them struggling with the celebrity, and I get it. I was there first! Being on the other end of the spectrum, and seeing how you decide what information you put out there, how you try and stay safe. At least these people have bodyguards.

What I was doing in 1997 was pretty dangerous. I had the same level of fame that Miley Cyrus does, but nothing to protect me. I wound up agoraphobic, I had stalkers and I was scared to go outside. I think it’s getting even worse now, actually. The Internet is much more unsafe for women.

How did you cope with the fame?

Ana Voog: It really depleted me. It still depletes me. I’m actually an introvert. I had to learn to make my core strong, because if you don’t have a strong core and know who you are, all that energy projected at you by all those people watching you will destroy you. Don’t become a cam girl if you can’t deal with all that energy.

Anacam was all about you being an ordinary person, doing ordinary things. Do you feel like nowadays everyone just presents the best versions of their lives online?

Ana Voog: I’m not surprised that people don’t want to be seen in a bad light online. Who wants to show up with a bunch of zits on their face? But for me, it was so important to be truthful because I grew up in this family where we always presented this perfect public persona to the world, and it bothered me as a child. I’m the rainbow coloured sheep of my family who’s like, ‘let’s just admit our faults and be honest’. If we’re not honest with each other, and the world, everything gets so fucked up. No-one online seems to be authentic anymore. I took that construct of a perfect life and I just smashed it down to show everyone my light and my dark and just be myself.

How did the level of fame impact on your personal life?

Ana Voog: It kind of tore my family apart. When my Mum found out about me having sex on camera ­– well, we don’t speak anymore. Anacam tore my family apart.

What was behind the decision to have sex on camera? 

Ana Voog: The first time it happened I was with an ex-boyfriend, and we just decided to do it on the net. We were quite wild like that. He also had an epically large penis, and was so handsome. So it’s kind of cool that some of the first sex on the Internet was with [she gestures with her hands] a guy who was this big! I found out later that Warren Beatty actually watched that. But it was so important that the sex was real, authentic. It was a feminist statement. There’s so much bad porn out there, you know? 

We actually stopped halfway through and ordered pizza and hung out. I just wanted to show people what real sex was, with two people who really cared about each other and loved each other. It was just friends getting together and having a fuck.

Do you get recognised now?

Ana Voog: I actually dread being recognised. I live in a super-conservative, religious part of Minnesota. It’s all guns and pick-up trucks. I don’t relish the thought of people from my daughter’s school knowing what I did.

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What made you wind up anacam after twelve years?

Ana Voog: Well, for one, all the software I used became obsolete. I used FTP web-cams, and no one was making them anymore. It became all about streaming, and I was never into that. I was always more of a silent movie star. The main thing though was that I’d just had my second child, and I wanted to protect them.

You conceived and gave birth to your first child on camera. Would you ever want her to watch that?

Ana Voog: You know, that was with my husband and it’s interesting because when we first got together we just had sex constantly on camera for five months. And actually my viewership went down. I think people wanted to believe that I was ‘theirs’ or something; they didn’t want to see me in love with someone else. But when I gave birth to her on camera it was incredible. Everyone celebrated online afterwards.

You always positioned yourself as a performance artist. Where did the performance end? How much of anacam was really you?

Ana Voog: I don’t have personas. Anacam – it’s who I am. All of it – the hair, the makeup – it’s all me. And the performance is still going on. I can’t even explain it. One of the mediums of the anacam project is time. It’s been going on for nearly two decades, and I’m the only artist out there doing this. It’s so vast. And it’s still a work in progress. Things will become more clear in ten years. 

Ana's started a new performance art project, Robot Girl, with collaborators around the world. You can check it out here.