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Signing Up to be Watched

Rene Gutel

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Jody Gnant
(Rene Gutel)
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Jody Gnant is never alone. Not even in her bathroom. On a recent morning she's standing in front of her sink. She's got jazz on in the background, her hair is in curlers, and she's putting on her make-up.

"Man, this mascara burns my eyes," she cries. "Oh, man, my eye! My eye! My eye! I don't know what they put in this stuff."

And as mundane as this is, 36 people are watching Gnant right now. If you were one of them, logged in to her website, what you'd see is Gnant on a small screen, and right next to it, a live chat, where her fans keep a running commentary on what she's up to. They post messages Gnant can read, and she answers them.

"Good morning, Muriel," she chirps to her webcam one recent morning.

"How's everybody doing? OK, OK, good afternoon. You gotta be so technical," she giggles.

Jody Gnant has been streaming her life on the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the last six months. Except for one week in early January, but we'll get to that later. She's attached a video camera to her laptop that she carries with her all the time. Gnant broadcasts nearly everything she does, but she's not a total exhibitionist. Like when she's in the shower--she points the camera at a painting to give her some privacy. She does sleep on camera.

"And people say, 'don't you find it creepy that there's people, like, waiting for you to wake up?'" she says. "And totally, no; I honestly believe that they're there to wish me off for a good day."

Gnant is 29 and was raised in Phoenix. After high school, she went to community college but never graduated. She ended up working for an airline, taking reservations over the phone, but about two years ago, she quit her day job to follow her dream and become a singer. Her viewers--and she has thousands who log on in any given day, even more on the weekends--might one day see her booking a gig, another day rehearsing. The last weekend of December, Jody had a concert in downtown Phoenix. She webcast that too. She calls her music "bohemian geek soul."

"Hey guys, thank you so much for braving the cold, turning down weekend New Year's parties to come out and jam with us. We really appreciate it," she told her audience, online and live.

Gnant never meant to be online this long. It was supposed to be a little promotional stunt, to drum up interest in her CD, "Pivot," released in September. But September came, and she was having too much fun to quit. For some of her friends, it's not as fun. Roger Belfiore says it's definitely cut into her relationships.

As he explains, when you're with Jody now, you're not just with Jody anymore. You're on the webcam.

"Once you hang around her enough, you learn to, um, adjust yourself because there's people around," Belfiore explains. "Other people are listening. You don't say phone numbers. You don't say profanity and stuff, and you try to respect what she's doing."

Gnant says a few friends have dropped into the shadows, waiting for the lifecast to be over. It almost came to a screeching halt the first week of January. She went offline for a whole week.

Gnant said she was under the weather and didn't feel like "being sick on camera." Some of her online fans called her up to make sure she was OK. One of them was Tammy Nelson. She's a stay-at-home mom, and says for a while, she had Gnant's web stream on in the house 24 hours a day. Nelson says she and Gnant have become best friends from the lifecast.

"We had a pretend blood-bonding on the chat one day. We both put red pen on our fingers, and I touched my screen and she touched her camera."

Another online friend is Matt Taylor, an IT specialist in rural Ohio.

"I think it's a fascination with the process of what she's going through," says Taylor. "You can see the ups and downs of her career. You actually see what's going on as it's going on. It's not recorded, it's not edited. It's better than reality television."

Simply by reporting this story on Jody Gnant, I also became part of the "lifecast." I met her at a club in downtown Phoenix, and she introduced me to her portable audience.

"This is Rene, everyone! She's going to be doing the interview."

I waved awkwardly into the video camera, and eked out a "Hello people!" The interview itself was a bit uncomfortable. I was self-conscious about having 75 people watching us online, and Gnant kept obsessively checking the chatroom. She calls her fans her kids.

"They need constant attention," she explains. "I mean, they do things on their own, don't get me wrong. They're adults in many cases and can suffice on their own, but um, but they need constant ... um ... " Gnant trailed off, unable to finish her sentence without looking down to see what her online fans were saying in the chatroom while she was talking.

She laughed, "They're saying, 'Feed me!'"

Gnant says she is not lifecasting in order to become a superstar and play to sold-out stadiums. She says she is trying to prove to the world that from the time she gets up, to the time she goes to bed, music consumes her.

"People have equated it with a hunger strike," she says. "Where you know, I'm on the Internet and I'm showing people what I'm doing: good, bad and ugly, and otherwise. They're just going to see that I'm not going to quit. Until maybe ... " Gnant pauses for a long time. "Well, no, I'm not going to quit."

She adds, "All I'm trying to do is make a living making music."

Gnant is not making enough money from her music yet, but every month, more and more people are logging on to the lifecast. She admits that sometimes she misses her privacy and is tempted to shut off her laptop, but she says she can't, because she's no longer just in it for herself. She doesn't want to let her fans down either. So for now, there's no end in sight.

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