Transcript

312:

How We Talked Back Then
Transcript

Originally aired 05.12.2006

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/312

Act One. Letters.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Long ago, when our radio show was first on the air, we tried an experiment, two experiments, actually. We did two of our shows onstage in Chicago within six months of each other. In the first, at this small club called the Lunar Cabaret, we had a kind of open mic, where people came onstage and they read letters, letters that they'd received, letters that they'd written, letters that they'd found.

The second show, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was all about this new phenomenon called the internet. This was 1997, and most people were still just discovering the internet. And we invited our listeners to come on and tell us stories about things that were happening on the web that never would have happened anywhere else.

Today on our radio show, we're going to go back to those two shows. They're like little time capsules, those shows. The internet stuff, which is going to be the second half of today's program, it just seems so quaint that we were asking ourselves, how big is this internet thing going to be? Is it really going to change things? And the letters that people read onstage that we're going to play in the first half of the show, even that feels like it's from a completely other time. Like, today, who writes letters? When do you write a letter except for a thank you note or a letter to get a job? Even soldiers in Iraq, when they write home to their families, they use email.

My co-host for both of these old shows was a Chicago playwright named David Hauptschein. David had been hosting and organizing events like this around Chicago where he would have people come onstage and read letters. So let's go back in time to 1996 and 1997.

Act Two. Internet.

David Hauptschein

All right, you see this egg timer here? This egg timer will get you off the stage after five minutes. When you hear [BELL RING] that, you must stop. If you're really nervous, I have this little elephant for people to hold, in case they're really--

Ira Glass

He's holding up a--

David Hauptschein

Oh, it's a rhino. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Ira Glass

You're holding up about a six-inch long, gray rhinoceros, fluffy rhinoceros.

David Hauptschein

So I will leave this up here on the podium. So if anyone gets really tense, just hang on to this.

Ira Glass

I hold in my hand a bowl, a silver bowl full of pieces of paper on which members of our audience here have written their names.

David Hauptschein

Please pick the first name, Ira.

Ira Glass

John Beaderman, come on up.

[APPLAUSE]

John Beaderman

OK, I'll read you a couple things from Carolyn. Hiya, hun. What are you up to? I'm listening to Motley Crue, Shout at the Devil. That's a pretty kick-ass tape. It's Joe's, but it's still a kick-ass tape, and Vince Neil is such a fox. I'd love to go backstage at a Crue concert. I'd be in total heaven, because I know what I'd do, and I'll bet you do too. Like my green marker? I think it's cool. Explain this to me. Something fishy's going on. What? I don't know. But you're acting fishy, so don't lie, and it's nothing I did.

I don't act any different than before we did it. Are you trying to say that I'm acting different, or I'm slightly more insane than unusual? Is that what you mean? I'm acting differently? If that's what you mean, how? I just heard Judas Priest [? talking to ?] Dio. That's pretty kick-ass. Why did Chris ask for me today? And why did you guys hang up on me? That's pretty ignorant, not to mention immature and rude.

I'm listening to Motley Crue, "Bastard" again, so they are so cool. I haven't decided if I like Crue or Maiden better yet, but they're both totally kick-ass. God, is this note [BLEEP] dumb. It's 7:30 and I want it to be 8:30 because then I can listen to RPM, Real Precious Metal 103.1. 831-1031. Kick ass! "Helter skelter, you may be a lover but you ain't no dancer, helter skelter."

[APPLAUSE]

David Hauptschein

OK, Ira.

Ira Glass

Next reader, Neal Pollack.

Neal Pollack

Hi. I wrote-- can I hold this?

David Hauptschein

Please do.

Ira Glass

Neal is holding the rhinoceros.

Neal Pollack

I wrote these letters soon after I graduated from college. And I like to turn back to them every now and then to remind myself what an idiot I was. I believed at the time that I could get any job I wanted anywhere at any point. And these letters, I think, are indicative.

Here's one I wrote to Tina Brown, who was then the editor of Vanity Fair magazine. Dear Ms. Brown, I'll cut to the quick. [LAUGHTER] I would like to work for The New Yorker, and I imagine, with the big changeover, you may need lots of editorial help. So I'm throwing my hat into the ring and asking you to consider hiring me as an editorial assistant for your new project.

I've been precociously reading The New Yorker for some time now. Most of the writers I respect most, living and dead, have written for your magazine at some time. I'm willing to cut my journalistic and literary teeth elsewhere if I can't get a job at The New Yorker, but I am determined not to end up anywhere else. The resume I've enclosed doesn't indicate this, but I've been working as a freelance writer since graduating two months ago. [LAUGHTER]

I've been doing pretty well, but I'm still waiting for the big score. Maybe you could help. I strongly encourage you to take a chance on me, but if I don't suit your needs at this time, thank you for reviewing my application. I look forward to hearing from you. [APPLAUSE]

About six months later, I hadn't yet heard from Tina Brown. So I turned my gaze elsewhere. Here's one I wrote to Strobe Talbott, who at the time was an editor-at-large at Time Magazine, and now, as you may or may not know, is a Deputy to the Secretary of State in the Clinton administration. So here's what I wrote to Strobe.

Dear Mr. Talbott, I'm a damn good editor. I'm young and gutsy as a marine in combat. My terse, tough prose style would make Raymond Chandler weep. Somewhere, somehow, the grapevine told me that you're starting a magazine called Globe Review. Said vine also let me know that the staff will be small, which means you're not hiring too many people. [LAUGHTER]

Being low man on the totem pole is fine with me. Your magazine sounds original, smart, and progressive, sophisticated but not shallow. Of course, I'm just guessing. Can you go global without me? I think so. Should you? I think not. Or at least hope not. I'll do good work as an assistant editor, copy editor, or researcher.

I'll be in New York City from November 11 through 17. If you'd like to interview me, you can contact me at the Chicago address on my resume until then. Thank you for reviewing my application, and I look forward to seeing the magazine, whether I'm part of it or not. [APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Next reader, Jenny Magnus.

Jenny Magnus

All right, this is a letter that I received. It's addressed to me. So my name is Jenny Magnus. And on the envelope it says, "Lessons for Advanced Beginners." And then on the back, it says, "burn after reading."

Dear Ms. Magnus, I almost fell off my chair when, during one of your pieces, you implied that you are, quote, "a really good artist." After sitting there listening to you chant "mama, mama, mama, mama, mama," which you got from Janov's book Primal Scream-- I shop through paperbacks at thrift stores, too-- then hearing you chant "give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, give it to me," I sat there wondering just how conventional some pretentious chick dressed in black can be.

I, by the way, use "chick" lightly, since you are not very feminine. In fact, you are nothing but a contrived, self-deceiving, selfish, not overly bright, mediocre joke. You might be able to fool the poseurs who hang around Urbis Orbis flattering your brother pretending to know, but not me, babe. Not me, babe. I use "babe" lightly. You are not a babe. You have-- [LAUGHTER] You have no sensuality, no charm, no looks, et cetera.

Without affectation, without deliberately taking steps to appear avant, where would you be? Nothing comes naturally to you, does it? You really have to steal and grub and labor. In fact, you are perusing this letter for material right now, I bet. [LAUGHTER]

I realized how repressed and affected you are during "Loser's Alias." And thank God for the fire which started, or you'd probably still be on the floor reciting your brother's tripe. You are just too, too uptight, baby. You think you can act uninhibited, but why do you want to? Is it that important to you that you seem to yourself and others as if you are special?

You are quite interesting, the only person with absolutely no substance I've ever met. How did you get so [BLEEP]? Give up art. You're no good at it, anyway. And save your [BLEEP] ass. Sincerely, Mason 32 Degrees. PS, well, I've done my good deed for tonight. [APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Our next reader, pulled from our bowl of readers, Adam Davidson. [APPLAUSE]

Adam Davidson

OK. This is age 16. Dear Adam, I can lose my guard best when I write. No wonder I scared off S with my letter. Speaking of which, I didn't hear from him. You see, how can I ever think of hurting you like that? Let's say something starts between us. What about S? I may not like him, but maybe I do.

Also, what if I'm just on the rebound from Dave? Not that I didn't like you before-- maybe I'm just free to say it now-- but I might be exaggerating it because I'm feeling a loss. Maybe we're confusing a really good friendship for love, et cetera. You know the deal.

Also, let's say we do have sex. It'll be a bigger deal for you. Not that I won't take it seriously. I have seriously thought about it. But it's a big responsibility to put on me, your first time, et cetera. Now who's babbling? Anyway, [LAUGHTER] I think you're a wonderful person and friend, and the last thing I want to do is screw that up.

Maybe we should just see, trial-run, if making out agrees with us. You never know, we might decide it doesn't feel right and keep things status quo. But we might end up getting it on every day. Excuse the vulgar language. As that guy in English class would say, "there is no pretty way to look at sex."

Anyway, I love you, but I'm not sure what kind of love. Love, K. Geez, I don't even know what attracts me to you. You're so [BLEEP] perfect I guess.

Then supplemental letter-- supplementary letter. Will things be the same once the sexual tension is gone? I think that's half the fun. It's what has kept Moonlighting on the air. Will we still be able to joke about getting married, et cetera, without feeling uncomfortable? Confusion, is there an S in confusion? I'm even mixed up about that.

We went out after that for a year. [APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Andrew Fenchel?

Andrew Fenchel

OK, I found this letter in the street in my neighborhood. I think it won't really need any other introduction, except that where the letter-writer refers to Vienna, I think it's safe to assume that that's not Austria. OK.

Time, 10:00 PM. June 10, '96. Dear Carla, what's up, babe? How are you doing? Fine, I hope. Well, I'm in Vienna. But I didn't forget to write.

Baby, I miss you. I can't wait to see you. I've been thinking about you all the time, and I can't stop. I got into a fight in here with a king, and for that I got two weeks in the hole. Baby, I hope you're not talking to someone else. I've been waiting for your letters, but I haven't received any yet. What's up with that?

Carla, I feel that you don't love me anymore. Baby, I love you more than what you could ever know. I miss making love to you, kissing you. Please send me some pictures of you. When I get out of here, I'm going to get a job. I'll even quit gang-banging if you show me you love me.

Carla, what do you mean when you say you went from 100% to 50%? I don't understand. I haven't been cheating on you, and I'll be with you all the time when I get out. Carla, I care about you a lot. You just don't know.

Why is your mom going to kick you out? What have you done? Please don't lie to me. Are you [BLEEP] around with someone else, staying out late? What is it? I've got the feeling you are seeing someone else, but I guess I can't trip, so long as when I get out, you come back to me.

What do you mean that you love me and good luck in life? [LAUGHTER] I get the first part but not the second. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] Are you breaking up with me? Are you going away from me? Whatever you do, wherever you go, you'll always be in my heart, Carla. Believe that.

I know you think I don't love you anymore, but you're wrong, babe. I said it before and I'll say it again, I love you Carla. [APPLAUSE]

[MUSIC - "I GOT A LETTER FROM MY BABY" BY ELMORE JAMES]

Ira Glass

Coming up, a guy offers a girl a late night tour of Microsoft, and this actually makes him seem hot. That, and other hard-to-believe tales from the early days of the internet, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act 2.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. If you're just tuning in, we're revisiting two live shows that we did in 1996 and '97, onstage in Chicago. In one show, listeners brought letters and read them onstage. And now we turn to the other show from back then. Back then, the internet was still new to most of us. And so we decided we were going to do a show where we would try to figure out what was happening on the internet, especially if things were happening on the internet that would never happen anyplace else.

And to answer that question, we advertised in cities around the country, inviting people to send us their stories about life on the internet. Some of these people I interviewed, and then others just showed up at the theater, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the night we did the show. And they came up to the mic, and they read from emails or web pages.

And I have to say, listening to this show, it's almost adorably quaint, the entire mission of this show. It's almost embarrassing, actually, to hear me and other people trying to think through this question, like, what is this internet? What is new about the internet? You'll hear there is a point where I'm talking to a woman who's looking through the websites of complete strangers. And it's like, can you believe it? She's looking through the websites of complete strangers.

And then she has this experience, which now is incredibly common, where she meets in person somebody who she first met on the internet. And we're all talking about it like, can you believe that such a thing can happen in this world that we live in? You'll hear. It's really interesting. It's like a historic document. So without further ado, let us turn on the time machine and go back to 1997. [APPLAUSE]

So Mary is 19 years old, an English major at the University of Washington. And one day, she's cruising the net, visiting the home pages of complete strangers.

Mary

And I came across this site that I thought was amazing. It was the most cutting-edge, thought-provoking site I had ever seen. And so I was examining it, checking it out, and I realized that this guy was my age, and he worked at Microsoft. And that just blew me away. Because I'm a student, I can barely afford coffee in the morning. And here, this guy worked at Microsoft.

I ended up emailing him just to tell him how much I liked his site and how amazing I thought it was. And he wrote back. And that went on for about four or five days. We just kept writing back and forth. Really personal stuff, too, not just computer geek stuff.

Ira Glass

What is the brave new world of the internet? You can meet a stranger and get to know them intimately, much faster on the net than you can anywhere else. But for a week, Mary and this guy wrote each other several times a day, long, personal emails. Then they agreed to meet in person at a coffee shop on Valentine's Day.

Mary

I was nervous before we met, because I was worried that he wouldn't find me as interesting in real life. So we met for coffee. We ended up spending the next 12 hours together.

There wasn't really a turning point until a few days later. We had continued to see each other. And one night, we ended up going out to his office at Microsoft. It was about midnight and nobody was there. And we were hanging out, and one thing led to another. And all of a sudden, we were making out.

Ira Glass

And?

Mary

It was crazy.

Ira Glass

And you were glad, though, because you were liking him.

Mary

Oh yeah, yeah. It wasn't a bad thing. But it was awkward because it was my first time. I had never really done that with anybody before.

Ira Glass

It was your very first time actually having sex with somebody?

Mary

Right, well, no. It was my first time kissing anybody.

Ira Glass

Kissing anybody at all?

Mary

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Because you hadn't had a high school boyfriend who you would do that with?

Mary

No. No. I was a real big loner in high school. I didn't get out much.

Ira Glass

So it was your first time just making out with somebody and it was at Microsoft.

Mary

Yeah. And so it made it all the more surreal, I think. It was just weird for me to think that, here's this guy I met a little over a week ago by chance on the internet. And here we are at his office doing this.

And then after that, I barely heard from him. He told me that he didn't want a relationship right now, that he wanted to wait. He kept using the term, he wanted to make his first million before he had a relationship with somebody.

Ira Glass

His first million?

Mary

Yes. After the fact, after the night at his office down there at Microsoft, I noticed, boy, he really was feeding me some lines there.

Ira Glass

Really?

Mary

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Like what else?

Mary

He actually was going to set me up with a copy of Office 97. He never did.

Ira Glass

The cad! At what point in the whole interaction did he promise you the Office 97, the free software?

Mary

Actually, the first night we met.

Ira Glass

Did you just think, he's feeding me a lot of soup?

Mary

No. I thought it was cool, because I had heard some things about Office 97. Wow, I'd like to have that.

Ira Glass

Now I'm sure you can only look back on the incredible naivety. Some young man is prowling the streets of Seattle, walking through the U District, telling women--

Mary

Got your free software.

Ira Glass

People came to the Museum of Contemporary Art with their own stories about the internet. My co-host is David Hauptschein.

David Hauptschein

We're going to begin with Joe Fosco. In preparation for this show, we spent many hours surfing the net together and finding files that we thought were interesting. And Joe's going to come up and read some. [APPLAUSE]

David Hauptschein

Wait a minute, Joe. Let me get this timer going here. I've got to put these other ones in different places.

Joe Fosco

This one I'm going to read now is a website of this guy who's building an aluminum ball, a ball of aluminum foil. And he went into quite a bit of detail about this ball.

He says, "I don't remember exactly how the ball began, but it is a sphere, composed entirely of aluminum foil of various varieties. It is mostly candy wrappers with a few bits of foil and other food items mixed in. So far the best finish coat is York Peppermint Patty wrappers. Other foil is fine, but a coat of Peppermint Patty wrappers is necessary to keep it on.

Gum wrappers also tend to have that quality, but they are far too difficult to peel, considering the minimal bulk they have. Gum wrappers do make a good finish coat on top of Peppermint Patty wrappers for show. Some items, such as Hershey's Miniatures, which look like they might be good candidates for foil, aren't. The ball is more impressive in person than this page can hope to depict."

Ira Glass

There's a picture of the ball.

Joe Fosco

Oh, there is. I don't know if you can see it. [LAUGHTER] And then he has this diary of its growth. And it starts back in January. And he says, "we've gotten an electric postage scale in the office. It reads one more digit of precision, so we now have a weight of 3.9 ounces. I have done the math to compute the density of the ball. Curiously, it is much lower than that of solid aluminum.

I have a hard time believing that the ball is less than half aluminum by mass, so I invite you to let me know if there are any errors in my computations. I expected that the density would be less than that of solid aluminum because of a small amount of air between layers of the foil, the adhesive coatings, inks, and small quantities of chocolate grease and other leftovers from the food items that the wrappers were originally used to package. I wouldn't have been too surprised by a 5% or even 10% difference, but I find the actual results obtained a little difficult to believe."

The other interesting thing is that on this, he has links to other sites that are making aluminum foil balls. [LAUGHTER] And someone else who is making a rubber band ball. [APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Our next presenter, our next reader, Noel.

Noel

My name is Noel, and I'm diastematic. Anybody here know what that means? It means that I have a gap between my front two teeth. For those of you unfamiliar with this whole website gap-tooth thing, I built a website for gap-tooth people. So yeah, idiotic. You want it? You've got it.

But I'm in good company. 10% of America, including David Letterman, Lauren Hutton, Noam Chomsky, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Itzhak Perlman, Chaucer's Wife of Bath, Vince Lombardi, blah, blah, blah, all with the tooth cleavage. I must admit, for better or for worse, yes, I'm the one who built this website. But the emphasis is humor. In early November last year--

Ira Glass

Wait, humor versus what? Like, attacks at people without gaps in their teeth? What would be the other thing that you would do? You would proselytize on behalf-- try to bring people over, encourage people to create gaps in their teeth?

Noel

Absolutely. This is very, this will hit on a lot of those themes. In early November last year, I was watching a Bears-Packers game. And during the pregame ceremonies, the USPS, the post office, unveiled art for a new stamp, due this summer, featuring the late, great Vince Lombardi, who was one of the greatest gappers ever to live. He was on a stamp, riding high atop the team in the throes of victory, smiling huge. But something was missing, Coach Lombardi's trademark gap-toothed grin. He had near-perfect pearly whites and the gap was gone.

The next day, as a joke, I added a page to the gap-tooth website, protesting the post office's depiction of Lombardi as a cosmetically-altered hero. Who would Don King be if he were bald? Or Gorbachev without the Kool-Aid stain? Or Jimmy Durante without that nose?

So knowing that this was the web, the oddball media that gets no real merit for its content, I expected little to no attention. But then came Yahoo, which featured it as a weekly pick. The Washington Post had me on the phone and ran a half-page story with my before and after pics. Chicago's Channel 7 came to my apartment and ran a story on its 6:00 News, just before the Super Bowl.

Getting out of hand? Yeah, timeout! If you're thinking this pathetic web-based protest should never have received any attention, I'm in agreement with you. What was ironic about this story is that they painted me as a freak-- imagine that-- a super fan ready to strap myself with bombs and blow up my teeth and Washington, DC if they didn't change the art.

And I thought, I'm just running a website for gap-toothed people. You can't take me that seriously. So I called up Bob, the artist of the postage stamp, and we talked about the stamp. We discussed angles and art representation. He was a really nice guy. I was thinking about dropping the protest already when he told me his three-year-old daughter was gap-toothed.

And that was it. Protest over. But what still gets me today is that the web has the power to make insignificant things seem real, that email can really serve as a powerful form of protest, which it did in this case, and that people, including myself, really do have too much time on their hands. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Well, for our next one, I thought we'd do one that people contacted us when we advertised around the country for things going on on the net. And somebody notified us about this one web page. We were searching for people who were having experiences on the net that they would never have otherwise. And this particular page was made by a woman named Jenni Ringley, a senior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. And like a lot of people, she created her own little home page on the world wide web.

Jenni Ringley

There's the regular part of my page, I guess you would say, with information about me, the music I like, things like that, like everybody has on their page. The one item that has become extremely popular, though, is the JenniCam. And it's just a camera that sits in my room and takes a picture every three minutes and uploads it. So every three minutes, you can find out what fascinating thing I'm doing in my room.

Ira Glass

The JenniCam is on seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and the number of people who want to see what fascinating thing is going on in a college girl's dorm room each day?

Jenni Ringley

People, I'm not sure. But as far as number of hits go, we get over 500,000 hits a day.

Ira Glass

A half million hits every single day.

OK, I'm just going to stop the recording right there. This is Ira. This is me in the present. This number right here, this number, a half million hits, we had no way to confirm that at the time. And not only that, we had no idea how to interpret that number. Like, it just seemed absurdly high, the idea that each page hit didn't necessarily represent a distinct person, that thought had not totally penetrated the culture.

And if you think about a photo every three minutes on this website, somebody staying on that site an hour might be counted as 20 separate hits. You'd only need 25,000 people to get to a half million. OK, anyway, let's get back.

Ira Glass

A half million hits every single day. And what do people see?

Jenni Ringley

Nothing, really. I write email. I sleep. I have friends over. You can watch my hedgehog when I'm not in the room. Things like that. Pretty much, just regular college life as far as I know.

Ira Glass

Our associate producer tuned in to your page just to see what was going on. And for about a half an hour, she witnessed you on the phone. Every three minutes, there'd be another picture of you in a different position on the telephone.

Jenni Ringley

I talk on the phone a lot.

Ira Glass

In a way, it's hard to think of anything more banal than seeing a college student's dorm room.

Jenni Ringley

I would have to agree. I would absolutely agree. I don't do anything that's that interesting. I don't have company very often. I don't do anything more interesting really than talk on the phone, watch TV, and sleep.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to talk about the nudity.

Jenni Ringley

Well, whenever I'm nude in my room, I'm nude on the JenniCam.

Ira Glass

But when I think about how often somebody is nude in the course of a day, it's really not very long.

Jenni Ringley

Well, maybe I'm not an average person. But I figure when I'm alone, who really cares? I sleep naked, and I get changed. And when I get out of the shower, I'm all wet. There's no hurry to put on clothes.

Ira Glass

Explain what the thrill is about being naked in front of a computer camera.

Jenni Ringley

Actually, with the camera there, I don't think about it much. So whenever I'm normally naked in my room, that's when I would be on the camera. It really doesn't affect me in much of a big way, I would say.

Ira Glass

But wait, you're saying it means nothing to you?

Jenni Ringley

I think the camera would be a lot less interesting if I paid that much attention to it. It would be more of a staged show, and you can go see a staged show anywhere. I think the whole appeal of the camera is that it is whatever is normally going on in my room. And with it having been up for a year and a half now, I'm pretty accustomed to it being there. It really doesn't affect me much, I would say.

Ira Glass

Have there been any moments over the last two years where you were sort of sorry that the camera was in the dorm room?

Jenni Ringley

Actually, it goes sort of the opposite way. Whenever I go home for breaks, for spring break or something like that, I'm always sad to be away from the camera. It's really a different feeling, whenever I'm in the room and the camera is broken, or for some reason, my room feels totally different. It's like I'm completely alone. So I usually prefer the camera be there, and I'm sad when it's off as opposed to wishing it weren't there.

Ira Glass

Because you don't feel alone when it's on.

Jenni Ringley

Right. Even though there's nobody actually there with me, even though I'm still alone, even if there's nobody watching the camera from the other end, it's just comforting to know that there is somebody metaphorically out there.

Ira Glass

In your view, why are so many people checking out the site each day?

Jenni Ringley

A lot of the people, it's totally hoping to find me getting out of the shower, getting dressed for bed, things like that. It's hoping to find the nudity. But I get lots of email from people who say that it's just nice when they're alone in their office to know that there's somebody else out there, somebody else that is doing nothing more interesting than what they're doing at the same time. It's like having a little virtual friend.

Ira Glass

Now, at some point in the two years, you've probably had somebody over in the dorm room to mess around.

Jenni Ringley

Sure.

Ira Glass

And?

Jenni Ringley

At that point, it goes on the other person's comfortability. I have no problem doing that. And that's the whole point of the camera is that it's whatever I'm doing. When I went into this, I understood that, in order to make it really work, it would have to be no matter what I was doing. But I can't really enforce that on people who are visiting me. So if the other person is uncomfortable, then the camera is turned off, or it points to a different part of the room.

Ira Glass

And generally, has the other person been uncomfortable?

Jenni Ringley

Yes. Yes.

Ira Glass

Was there ever a time that you actually had somebody over where you actually kept the camera on the two of you?

Jenni Ringley

Yes, in fact. And the funny thing is that it never actually was broadcast because the number of people suddenly reloading on the server ended up crashing the computer that posted the JenniCam at the time.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Jenni Ringley

So even though we were there and the camera was on, the server was crashed by the number of people wanting to see.

Ira Glass

What's your impression of who these people are?

Jenni Ringley

Oh, I don't know. Mostly men, it's almost exclusively men. I get about 700 emails a day. And of that number, maybe 10 are from women.

Ira Glass

You get 700 emails a day?

Jenni Ringley

Right.

Ira Glass

What are people saying to you?

Jenni Ringley

Well, a lot of those are entries to a contest on my web page called "Name that Curve" where once a week I put up a new picture of some close-up shot of a part of my body and people guess what it is. So I would say 300 or so of that number are "Name that Curve" entries. The rest of them are people saying either I saw your web page, I like your page, or can I call you, or can you send me private, special pictures? It really, really, ranges.

Ira Glass

Jenny says she spends five to six hours a day answering email. And when I talked to her, on the one hand, there seemed to be something completely innocent in what she was doing, putting herself out there and not really caring who sees. And if you press her about her on exhibitionism, she'll tell you over and over, oh, no, no, it's not about exhibitionism. It's an experiment at letting people view a person's entire life without editing.

Though, one thing that she's gotten on the internet that she could never have gotten so easily any other way is she's famous within a small circle. It's a small, particular kind of thing.

Jenni Ringley

I do get a fair number, at this point, of requests for autographed pictures and people wanting to buy my hair and my clothing, things like that.

Ira Glass

What?

Jenni Ringley

It's pretty scary. Well, one time, I was caught on camera actually trimming my bangs, because if you only have to do that, it's cheaper. And all of a sudden, I got 40 emails from people saying, are you going to do anything with that hair? Can I buy it from you?

Ira Glass

And what did you make of that?

Jenni Ringley

Well, it's kind of scary. I mean, I do meet people from time to time. Somebody will say, I'm passing through the area, do you think I could meet you?

Ira Glass

And you say?

Jenni Ringley

I actually have a pretty good knack for getting a good feeling about people right off the bat. So sometimes I say no, sometimes I say yes. I've had dinner with probably a dozen people from the JenniCam.

Ira Glass

And has that been nice?

Jenni Ringley

I had one person who had a hard time taking no for an answer, even after I made it abundantly clear I wasn't interested.

Ira Glass

Really? That's kind of creepy.

Jenni Ringley

It is, kind of. I've had a fair number of improper passes at the end of the evening. But it stays at a pass.

Ira Glass

If there were a cable channel that would just have a camera on in your room, with no sound, 24 hours a day, do you think you'd get a half million viewers?

Jenni Ringley

I don't think so. I don't think I would, because if you have the TV, you have other things you can watch. I think it would still be popular, but I think at that point, it would be a lot less interesting. Because people can do this from their offices, at work, if they have internet usage that's not monitored. From work, you can just put it on and leave it on in the background while you're doing whatever else on your computer.

Ira Glass

Jenni Ringley has just graduated from college. She's moved to another city, where she has gotten a job designing web pages for a big national magazine. [APPLAUSE]

OK. It's me again in the present. Jenni Ringley and the JenniCam were internet celebrities for seven years, written about all the time. There were parody websites, JenniCam-ing people's pets and stuff like that. She was invited on the Letterman show. She was included in a 2001 exhibit done by the Museum of Modern Art. The word JenniCam was reportedly, for a while, one of the most popular search terms on Slashdot.

Until finally, at the end of 2003, Jenni Ringley shut down the site. According to Wikipedia, fans started to turn on her in part because they were annoyed that she just would loaf around the apartment. There was a feeling of, like, get a job. By the end, people had to pay to log on to the site, and she actually was making decent money from it, or seemed to. And this annoyed fans as well.

To the very end, she continued to describe the site as a kind of art project. "I keep JenniCam alive not because I want or need to be watched, but because I simply don't mind being watched," she wrote. "What you see is my life, exactly as it would be, whether or not there were cameras watching, as a chronicle, a long-term experiment."

Well, now, this example of people's lives changed by the internet, Eileen and Fred Kiefer live outside Columbus, Ohio. They are septuagenarians with seven kids and 13 grandkids.

Eileen Kiefer

OK, well, when we first got our email going on our computer, I sent a message to our son in Milwaukee whose address was K-I-E-F-F.

Ira Glass

K-I-E-F-F?

Eileen Kiefer

Yeah. It was my first time to use it, and I left one of the F's off.

Ira Glass

Her email was a chatty email about everything going on in the family, signed "love, Mom."

Eileen Kiefer

So I got back a letter from someone whose address was K-I-E-F. And he said, I enjoyed this letter, but I don't think you meant it for me. And so then I wrote back and said, thanks and explained how I'd made the mistake. And he wrote back. And we've been writing now for, it'll be two years this month.

Ira Glass

The man, the couple actually, who got her email were Kiefer and Galen Mitchell in Portland, Oregon. He works at Tandy and does a radio show out there. And when he got Mrs. Kiefer's email in his account, the thing that actually got to him was that she signed it "love, Mom." His own mother had just died two months before. His father had been dead for years. Mrs. Kiefer said she never intended or wanted to have a long-term email friendship.

Eileen Kiefer

It seems like we had nothing in common going in. The age difference, and they had no children, and they're Mormons and we're Catholics. So it seemed like there wasn't a whole lot that we had to talk about. But we never have any trouble.

At first, we were writing every day. We were both so excited about this. And now, we're usually in touch at least once a week. And we've visited, and he's in Oregon. We're in Ohio. We visited in Portland last year and spent a couple days with him and had a wonderful time.

And they're like 30 years younger than we are. So we've become mom and dad, and we've adopted them. We call them our legally adopted children. And in December, when I had a serious operation, he was on the phone every night, just like the rest of our kids. So he's really become one of our kids.

Ira Glass

So what in the world was it in those first emails they sent two years ago? What could people possibly say to create a bond like that?

Eileen Kiefer

Oh, I don't remember. I just remember indicating that I was 70. So there was-- I didn't want anybody to think that we were going to have this big romance or anything.

Ira Glass

And then--

Eileen Kiefer

Because you read these stories about people doing weird things with people on the internet. We never had that problem.

We have seven children. And all of them have email except one. And the ones out of town, we hear from a couple times a week. One of our daughters, we hear from almost daily.

Ira Glass

Now, did you have as much contact with them before email?

Eileen Kiefer

Oh, no. No. We would talk on the phone maybe once a month. And it was always, how are you? And you never really were part of their lives that way. And two of our children live in Boston. And we just weren't-- well, we were always close. We weren't communicating very often.

Ira Glass

So email has really brought you all closer together.

Eileen Kiefer

Oh, it's wonderful. I keep trying to talk everybody I know into it, if their children have access to a computer. It's changed our life a lot. It's just changed our lives. I wouldn't think of not checking the computer first thing in the morning to see who's writing.

Ira Glass

Eileen Kiefer in Dublin, Ohio.

[APPLAUSE]

Well, as we looked for stories from the net for this show, especially stories of things happened on the net that might not happen anywhere else, we found Earl Jackson. He's an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and he spends a lot of time on the net. He writes about the net, has seven websites himself. And he tells this story, which begins on America Online.

Earl Jackson

I was on AOL and other services in San Francisco a lot. And there are these chat rooms where gay men can meet and talk. And in San Francisco, it's fairly wild. There's a 24-hour bulletin board that I was observing for this study I was doing, where you could almost be guaranteed that if you lived in San Francisco and you had a modem, you could have sex any time of the day or night. This was a very goal-directed bulletin board.

Ira Glass

Right. People would meet, go have sex.

Earl Jackson

Right. And you would know exactly what they wanted to do, and you would probably have nude pictures of them before that. What I also thought was really interesting-- and this was more true of AOL-- that there was a new metaphysics of sexuality. Because people would talk about, cyber-sex or real sex? And it occurred to me after I listened to enough, by real sex they meant phone sex.

Ira Glass

Oh, really?

Earl Jackson

Yeah, so it became, instead of a two-tier system, it's a three-tier system. And you have real sex, ultra-real sex, and cyber-sex.

Ira Glass

Wait, ultra-real sex, you said?

Earl Jackson

That would mean what I call a slow-time interface, which means actual physical contact.

Ira Glass

God, do people still do that?

Earl Jackson

Um, yes.

Ira Glass

Earl Jackson says that he meets more and more people who have hooked up what amounts to video cameras on their computers with a technology called CU-SeeMe, they can look at the person they're interacting with over the net.

Earl Jackson

I know people that actually leave physical dates to go home and have sex over the net with the quick cam.

Ira Glass

Come

Earl Jackson

It's true. There's an entire culture that's entirely video transmission sexuality now.

Ira Glass

Talk a little more about that. You actually know somebody who actually left an actual date--

Earl Jackson

Yeah, me, in fact.

Ira Glass

Oh, they left you?

Earl Jackson

Yeah, they left me. But he said that that is what he does lately. And I understood that, because a lot of men are afraid of sexual contact because of AIDS. So the perfect thing to eroticize is distance.

Ira Glass

And so he says to you-- at what point in the evening did he say, I'm going to go home now?

Earl Jackson

Pretty soon. He said that he really needed to do the CU-SeeMe stuff.

Ira Glass

Back in December of 1993, Earl Jackson met a guy over the net in one of these gay chat rooms. The guy's name was Ken, who lived nearby, but he had a boyfriend so the two never met in person. But almost every day for a year, they got online together and created these elaborate fantasies together online, using that kind of software where you can see what the other person types as they type it, and they can see what you type as you type it.

Earl Jackson

We would have a fantasy about what if he came to my classroom and then I took him back into my office. But it was really sort of a game. But these narratives became so intense that we would set times of the day, or he would just check in. And he said, do you have time for a story now? And he would start it, and then I would continue it. And we have all of these stories.

But as we kept doing this, then a little part of his life would come in. And then there would be a story that would take us somewhere else. And then I'd know a little bit more. And soon the sex part was really an excuse to tell the other stories.

And sometimes he would be telling this story about his childhood in Missouri. And then it would remind him of a sexual fantasy. And then he'd put me in it. And you couldn't plan to do these things. We became sort of like jazz pianists or something. We'd have these riffs together.

Then one day, he was asking me if I had time to talk to him. And I was just leaving, but I could tell that even the way he was typing was different.

Ira Glass

You could tell even the way he was typing was different?

Earl Jackson

Yes, yes.

Ira Glass

What do you mean?

Earl Jackson

People have different habits in their speed, or the way he would respond, or if he didn't put a smiley face after a certain number of words. I just knew there was something really wrong with the way he asked me if I had time.

And he said, bad news, son. And I think I knew it instantly, what that was. He had tested positive. And he didn't know how to break it to me. And our messages to each other then became a lot more about that and about what happened to him as a child and other things that were fairly tragic and amazing that he was telling anybody, because he was really one of those strong, silent types.

Then-- this is when I should have gotten more nervous-- he started saying that he didn't want any of his porn tapes anymore because he associated the porn with him being positive. So he wanted to mail them to me, and he mailed me a box of them. I didn't really want them, but he wanted to do this for me. So there was suddenly a box of porn tapes in my house. And then the following week, there was one too.

And then just before I got back to San Francisco, I got a message from him, hoping that I was well and hoping I got the tapes. And he said that I'd get another message very soon. Now, he was writing to me almost entirely in capital letters, which scared me. And I didn't know why. But here's the last one. "I have it all boxed up now. I will give it my friend. He will mail it for me like he did before. And it will arrive either Thursday or Friday, via two-day express. I have a letter coming to you to help explain a few things. Thank you for being a friend when I really needed it. Kenneth."

And then three days, nothing. And then there's just one line. "A package should arrive today. 1/19/95. Email me. Cruiser3. Bye. Love, Ken."

And then on the 25th, there was one that looked like it was from Ken. It was his screen name. But then, when I opened it up, it said, "this is a hard note for me to write. Ken left a note to ask me to let you know Ken took his own life on Friday, January 20. He was cremated yesterday, and his ashes will be dropped into the ocean off of San Francisco today. Ken's mental attitude over the last four to six weeks is very hard to describe. He was a basket case to say the least. I will keep his account open for the next day if you have any questions or response, and I will try to answer them for you. Ken's friend, Dave."

Ira Glass

Did he send you a final note in the last package he sent you?

Earl Jackson

Yeah. It was the only time I ever saw his handwriting. And that said similar things. He said, thank you for being a friend when I needed it. And I would always love you.

Ira Glass

It must have been so strange to see a physical manifestation of him after the email.

Earl Jackson

It was. And what was really odd was that, when he first sent the first box of tapes, he told me which tape had a scene where the two people are the ones that he imagined us to be. Now, that doesn't mean that he looked like either one of them, but he knew the fantasies that would resonate with us. So even at that point, our fantasies were constantly mediated by some other technology, which is probably hard for you to imagine.

But none of this was cold. There was something so tender about this that I was very moved by this experience.

Ira Glass

After he died, did you go through a period of mourning for him?

Earl Jackson

Yes, I did. Yes.

Ira Glass

What a strange thing to be mourning somebody who you never actually saw.

Earl Jackson

Yeah. Although, it's real. You know, when people say, oh, the computers are making us all isolated and it's such a cold world, I've had emotional experiences and long-term friendships that would have never possible otherwise.

Ira Glass

It's funny because it's almost like the whole thing, it could be a con, an elaborate con.

Earl Jackson

He would be such a creep that-- I thought of that, actually. Because it seemed almost like a melodrama from a long time ago. It was really tawdry. And if I wrote a short story, I wouldn't end it this way because it was too hokey.

Ira Glass

After he died, you know how after somebody you're close to is gone, how when you go back to the places where you used to go with them, you'll think of them inevitably and miss them. After he was gone, when you would get back on your computer, would you sense his loss?

Earl Jackson

Yes. He really felt gone. He really felt gone. When I saw somebody else using his screen name, I mean, to get a stranger with his screen name, that was really, really chilling.

Ira Glass

Earl Jackson in Santa Cruz.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Dolores Wilbur, Julie Snyder, and me, with Paul Tough, David Hauptschein, Peter Clowney, Alix Spiegel, and Nancy Updike. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Laura Doggett, Seth Lind, Thea Chaloner, and Sativa January. The internet part of today's program was a co-production with Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, Peter Taub, curator.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

David Hauptschein's most recent play, The Ballad of Johnny 5 Star, premiered at the Edinburgh Theater Fringe Festival. Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our show for absolutely free, or buy CDs of them, or you know you can download today's program at our archives on that famous internet at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed bu Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Torey Malatia, who insists he doesn't even know what Office 97 is. No matter what anybody says--

Mary

He actually was going to set me up with a copy of Office 97. He never did.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.