Why 23,201 people care that Justine Ezarik just ate a cookie.
Twenty-four-year-old Justine Ezarik, who goes by the moniker “iJustine,” is bouncing around on my computer screen in a pink tank top and black bra, her platinum hair–ordinarily perfectly straight– increasingly mussed as she works herself into a frenzy about something. I have turned my computer’s sound off, so I don’t know what’s making her widen her heavily made-up eyes, flail her head from side to side, and fix the camera with an open-mouthed pout. My boyfriend glances at my screen as he walks by–and stops in his tracks and watches.
“When is she going to take her top off?” he says after a minute.
A few days later, on the phone from her new home in L.A., Ezarik tells me that women who work “in technology” are at a disadvantage: “People don’t want to take us seriously.” Her chirpy voice is familiar from the video (which turned out to be about a frustrating exchange with a prissy waiter who tried to steer her away from ordering a cheeseburger). “Like, speaking on panels, people don’t want to take you seriously. I’ve been in technology all my life. Like, I was the only girl in my computer science classes in high school. That’s why a lot of younger girls look up to me now, because they want to do this stuff and use it to its full potential.”
By “this stuff,” Ezarik means video blogging about gadgets and social-networking sites, not widening your eyes and yelping with delight and making sure your cleavage is in frame. But you’d have to be even wider-eyed than iJustine to believe that those latter skills, impediments to being taken seriously on panels though they may be, haven’t contributed to stardom in new media.
For iJustine is a star: a week after that cheeseburger video was posted, it had been viewed more than 600,000 times on YouTube. That’s nothing compared with the more than 1,336,000 views generated by the most famous of her 168 YouTube videos, “iPhone bill.” (In iJustine’s masterwork, which like most of her oeuvre takes a little over a minute to consume, she simply flips through her hefty 300-page phone bill, exasperated.) Her channel iJustine.tv on the two-year-old user-generated-video site Justin.tv, where for six months she wore camera equipment and “lifecast” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is still one of that site’s most popular.
Ezarik is one of a new breed of completely self-constructed celebrities. Like my friend Julia Allison, whose online self-promotion recently landed her on the cover of Wired, she is a Web 2.0 version of the American everygirls with bleached teeth and fake tans who have enjoyed reality-show notoriety for a decade. But Ezarik didn’t wait around for a reality show to cast her: she trained the camera on herself, controlling every aspect of how she was portrayed. And while her shtick is that she’s just putting quotidian stuff online, she’s actually as invested as a reality-show producer in shaping and policing a brand. “I feel like iJustine has become sort of like this character,” she explains. “It’s not like I don’t drink or go out and do stuff, but I won’t drink on camera, and if I swear I’ll bleep it out. I really try to keep it clean. I kind of think if my grandmother won’t like it I won’t do it, ‘cause she’s probably one of my biggest fans.”
Justin.tv helped make Justine Internet famous. Ezarik has been a professional (albeit one who hastens to say, “Put that in quotes: ‘professional!’”) video blogger for the past two and a half years, but her celebrity got a boost when she approached Justin.tv founder Justin Kan at last year’s Macworld conference. “He was wearing a camera strapped to his head, and I was like, ‘What is that?’” she says. She says she asked to try the camera out, after which she and Kan decided that she would either wear the camera or be on camera all the time–with exceptions for the bathroom and meetings–for the next six months, becoming what she calls a “beta tester” for Justin.tv. (She was never paid by the site, which makes money by embedding ads in and around its user-generated–that is, free–content.)
By now, Justine has reduced her lifecasting to a few hours per week. (Justin.tv is now leaning away from it, too: “In our experience, there are less broadcaster-intensive uses–cases that produce more interesting content for the end user,” Justin.tv CEO Michael Seibel obscurely explained in an e-mail.) In part, this is simply because Ezarik needs Justin.tv less than she once did: she has 50,000 MySpace friends, she long ago reached her limit of 5,000 Facebook friends, and she has about 23,000 Twitter followers. Two hours ago she informed them that she was “LOL”ing. Twenty hours earlier, she was eating a “really good cookie.”
Ezarik backed away from lifecasting–well, for a lot of reasons. She says she quickly became immune to the nastier anonymous online comments, but she did feel sorry for friends who would stumble into the frame and wind up as collateral damage–mocked or, worse, vetoed by her viewers. “Someone e-mailed and was like, ‘We’re going to have to vote [a friend] off your show,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘Actually it’s not a show; actually, this is just my life.’”
But was iJustine.tv really just Justine’s life? Explaining how lifecasting has led her to new opportunities–like a series of video advertisements, to appear on AT&T’s website, that she’s just finished shooting in Alaska–Ezarik describes how living under constant scrutiny helped her hone her dramatic skills: “I had to be ‘on’ at all times. It was kind of like a résumé-building experience. I mean, I wasn’t acting, but I kind of was.”
This kind-of-acting is all over YouTube, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s hard to describe. Women like Justine seem to be imitating hot-yet-funny comedian-actresses like Chelsea Handler and Anna Faris, making goofy expressions and doing silly voices. Unlike those comedians, however, they’re looking at their own reflections in the camera’s viewfinder and posing ceaselessly, the way you do when you look in a mirror. But it’s hard–maybe impossible!–to be funny when you’re worried about looking pretty. Justine compensates for her unfunniness with bug-eyed, squealing enthusiasm. Wheeee! She’s chased down an ice-cream truck! Eeeek! She found an Apple store with the new iPhone in stock! Oooooh! Yes, she is finally, ohmygod, going to get her glossy lips around a cheeseburger! Yay!
In an era when fame has never been less likely to guarantee fortune, it seems fair to ask Ezarik what keeps her in cheeseburgers. Specifically, does she receive endorsement money from Apple, whose products she promotes obsessively? (She’s the first person in months from whom I’ve received an e-mail with the “Sent from my iPhone” auto-signature attached. I was reminded of a former coworker who, the day after the iPhone’s release, changed his signature to read, “Sent from my iPhone, yeah, I have one, no big deal.”) “Everyone’s like, ‘They pay you. They pay you,’” she says. “My manager’s like, please stop promoting Apple so much. Maybe one day–that’s what I’m hoping for,” she says with a laugh. But for now, while she and her manager–a man named Richard Frias, whose other clients include the YouTube celebrities HappySlip and KevJumba–await that Apple endorsement deal, she makes her money by appearing at conferences and in online promotional spots, and dreams of becoming really famous, like on TV or in movies.
She’s delighted to have moved from Pittsburgh to L.A., she says: “There are so many more projects. It’s a lot easier having someone else shoot and edit for you.” But while lifecasting has paid off for Ezarik career-wise, it’s also had its downside, life-wise. For starters, maintaining contact with her growing fan base has become a major time suck. Fresh off the plane from Alaska–the first thing she mentions about the trip is how slow the Internet access was there–Ezarik’s got a backlog of thousands of e-mails in her in-box. From her mail, she’s concluded that her fans are mostly between 11 and 18, and that they’re about half male and half female–which is “surprising,” she says, because “when you think of technology and the Internet, you think of guys.” At a fair in Alaska, Ezarik bumped into one of the young male fans, who was overwhelmed. “He was, like, shaking,” she says. “He was like, ‘Are you–are you iJustine?’ I was like, ‘It’ll be okay.’”
And then there’s what Ezarik calls “the stalker stuff,” which has subsided but is still a factor. “I try not to publicize the stalker stuff, because I don’t want them to know they’re getting to me,” she says, but she allows that people call her parents’ house “all the time.” “I’m lucky to be alive,” she says more than once, and each time she says it, the light, chipper tone of her voice doesn’t alter. She could just as easily be talking about a new iPhone app.
Still, this is the first response I’ve gotten from Ezarik that hasn’t sounded somewhat coached or canned, and it emboldens me to ask her, point-blank, whether she likes the attention. She pauses a moment, then deftly parries. “I don’t hate it,” she deadpans. “What I like the most about everything is the community of people I’ve brought together. When I was lifecasting, I was a way for people to connect. It wasn’t even about me. I was sitting there doing nothing, and people were having conversations about politics and their life. And it was kind of cool to see that.”
One last question: does Ezarik consider herself a feminist? “I try to keep everything very clean so other women don’t feel like they have to use sex to sell,” she replies, and then goes on in that vein. Apparently, the conversation about Judith Butler and gender as performance will have to wait for another day.
Still, when we hang up so that Ezarik can start chipping away at her in-box, I think about how well she answered my question about attention. Attention’s a touchy subject right now. As we trust cultural arbiters less and less to tell us who deserves attention, calling those who seek it–especially women–attention whores has become a dismissive, silencing insult. But here’s the thing: understanding that your blog is less a shrine to your awesomeness and more a location where a like-minded community can form–and genuinely being okay with that–is actually pretty rare, even among Internet personalities. iJustine’s willingness to let her fans share her spotlight, even as she mugs for the camera, might be what’s really helping her rack up all those page views.
So maybe I should be taking Justine Ezarik more seriously, or at least not dismissing her for being blonde and photogenic, and knowing it and using it to her advantage. Certainly, I find the persona she’s crafted cloying; but then, I’m not the intended audience. For the Twittering 16-year-old who lives for gadgets, though … well, it’s easy to see why he’d quake in her presence.
“I am the Internet” is the tag line of iJustine’s YouTube channel, and when I first saw it, I was offended on the Internet’s behalf. It didn’t seem fair that this girl was getting so much attention for providing her fans with a steady stream of Twittered fake intimacies–“Eating chocolate-covered pretzels”; “I don’t like time zones!!”–and cutesy videos. The idea that she was somehow representative of all of us online was galling.
The great thing about the Internet, though, is that it isn’t about to run out of bandwidth. iJustine is the Internet, sure, but so are you, if you want. There’s no reason–centuries of cultural conditioning aside–why you couldn’t do things differently.
Emily Gould was an editor at Gawker.com from November 2006 to January 2008. She wrote about Walter Benjamin in The September/October Issue of Technology Review.
Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.Subscribe today