For reasons that I’ll explain below, I call bullshit on Ondi Timoner’s documentary We Live in Public, which tracks the rise and fall of a somewhat obscure but innovative Internet pioneer, Josh Harris. Josh Harris is a fuckwit, but he was a somewhat prescient fuckwit who just happened to come up with an obvious idea before everyone else did and made millions before Wall Street realized he was too far ahead of his time.
Harris, who started out as a market researcher in the early 90s, was an early adapter: He jumped on the Internet almost immediately, and rode it like a stallion fucking a toy dog, trying to fit something into an Internet world that was too small and not yet built for it. Harris — a nerdy, schlubby motherfucker — was a forerunner of chat rooms. In 1993, he created Pseudo.com, which aired live audio and video webcasting or, essentially, Web TV, which combined video with chat rooms on Prodigy, allowing viewers to comment and interact while watching Pseudo programming. There were even channels were you could watch an interact with streaming porn (all done over dial-up, mind you) and a networking gaming station devoted to Doom II. Based on Pseudo.com’s potential, Harris was able to take it public and was soon worth $80 million (at least on paper). Unfortunately, Harris was not just a nerdy pioneer, he also wanted to be an artiste, so he soon created his own alternate personality, Luvvy, a deranged clown that wasn’t looked upon too fondly by the corporate world.
Harris was soon bought out of Pseudo.com (which later folded in the dot com bust, in part, because the dial-up world wasn’t ready for streaming TV), and used his millions to fund some human experiments with media. Most notably was “Quiet: We Live in Public,” an Orwellian experiment in which 100 or so bohemian types (including this doc’s director) lived in an underground terrarium for the 30 days leading up to the millennium. In that pod-filled bunker — sort of a “Big Brother” filled with 100 Berkley grads, or my worst fucking nightmare — everyone was on camera at all times; cameras watched while people fucked, shat, and ate. Food and drugs were supplied, for free, though the participants weren’t allowed to leave the bunker and were, at times, subject to interrogation. Oh, there was also a shooting range inside the bunker and enough weapons to take out half of Manhattan, which seems like just the sort of thing you’d want in a claustrophobic environment full of drugs and orgies. The cops shut it down on New Year’s Day, but not before Harris basically proved that people will do anything if there’s a camera on them.
Soon after that, Harris — who is one spectacularly socially retarded guy — somehow secured a girlfriend (one of the online personalities at Pseudo.com) and they decided to try another experiment: Using motion sensitive cameras, they basically created their own EDtv: Their every conversation, every movement, every screw, and every argument was streamed, live, onto the Internet (there were even cameras in the toilet, so you could witness the underside of Harris’ ass do its magic). Viewers could live-comment, which meant that after their arguments the two could go back to their computers and see whose side their audience was one. Obviously, the relationship crumbled. Harris went broke, went into a downward spiral of depression, moved to an Apple Orchard (before later moving to Ethiopia), and has basically been MIA for the last decade.
But if you believe Ondi Timooner and her documentary — which bills Harris as an internet pioneer who blazed a trail that led us to MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter — Harris has had a massive influence on the Internet. He’s also one of the many poster children of the dot com excesses — he threw lavish, million-dollar parties, basically tossing his money into a toilet. But We Live in Public is, more than anything, a statement about our culture’s unyielding need for fame, and how we’ve used the Internet to fuel our addiction to attention. That’s the more sinister side of it, the side gets most of the attention, thanks to people like Julia Allison and a wealth of other Internet Celebrities. But I’d argue that Harris had a very tenuous connection, at any rate, with Social Media, and that it’s not nearly as sinister as Harris so “presciently” predicted. Harris posited, through his human/media experimentation, that the Internet and its ability to allow us to live in a world in which were all capable of sharing our lives on a massive scale, would create alienation, make us all a lot more lonely.
And that’s why I call bullshit on We Live in Public. That hasn’t been the result of the Internet. In fact, as Seth very eloquent argued, in many respects, it’s had the complete opposite effect.
Gone are the days when a beloved public figure passes and you don’t hear about it until the evening news, and don’t read something moving about it until the next morning’s paper or the next week’s issue of some magazine. Gone are the days when a beloved private figure passes and is only mourned and celebrated by a select few. Gone are the days when you have to be in a specific place, at a specific time, to take part in a specific moment. I wonder if some odd years from now, when folks look back on what is still, really, the dawning early days of the information age, if this isn’t one of the aspects that will be seen to have had the most widespread impact. The communities and bonds and public rituals that developed as a result of some tubes letting folks all over the world share some thoughts we each other. I hope so, because it’s some shit.
That’s, in part, why I’m annoyed with this documentary — in my mind, it focuses on an eccentric fuckstick (seriously, when his mother was on her deathbed, he sent her a goodbye video) who isn’t nearly as prescient as Ondi Timoner would have us believe. And she’d want us to believe it, of course, because Harris — and not Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook, or Jack Dorsey, who founded Twitter — was the person she spent a decade filming. Timinoor had over 5,000 hours of footage — collected both herself and from Harris’ experiments — and it behooved her to try to market this documentary as something it isn’t, a culturally relevant statement about the illusory of intimacy we’ve developed on blogs and in Social Media. It may be fake intimacy for some people, and for some others it may be all about feeding their need for attention, but I’d argue that — for the majority of people who have given in to comment threads, and Facebook, and Twitter — it has created at least a level of actual intimacy. And it sure beats the hell out of using the phone (if you’re a phoneophile, raise your hand!)
The other thing that annoyed me about We Live in Public is that it’s yet another piece that focuses on one of those morons who made millions in the dot com era, and half expects us to feel sympathy for him when he lost it all. You know what: Fuck him. I was a bit player in that second-wave of Internet start-ups — through dumb luck and timing, a friend from high school and I managed to start a company that made $10 million in revenue by its third year. It never made it to its fourth year — in fact, this site (a side project of that company) is pretty much all that remains (sadly, all the money was spent hiring people that weren’t able to keep us ahead of the curve, so to speak, before corporate America and their billions usurped our small time advantage). We had a good run, though, and I’d never expect anyone to feel sorry for our bad business decisions (if you came here from GoFugYourself, however, you can thank that old, defunct company for all the advertising it paid for). And if we’d spent our money on orgies and drugs, I’d expect not sympathy, but swift kicks to the ass.
And that’s what Josh Harris deserves.
This review originally was published during the Boston International Film Festival. The movie opens in NYC tomorrow.