We Live in Public — Dig! director Ondi Timoner’s frantically paced feature-length doc on Silicon Alley web TV pioneer Josh Harris — won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film festival last week, making Timoner the first filmmaker to take the festival’s top documentary prize for two consecutive Sundance premieres. In terms of craft, Public is imperfect, sometimes slipping into too-easy soundtrack choices reminiscent of a YouTube fan montage, sometimes getting lost in a wall of lightning-cut stock footage that plays as very early 90s MTV.
That said, the significance of Public’s story is impossible to dismiss. Though for the most part it avoids depicting 9/11 as a structuring event, the film is aggressive in drawing the fundamental distinctions between the American mass consciousness of Before and After. After eight years, Public may be the first sign that post-9/11 cinema has finally come into its own.
Josh Harris founded Internet research firm Jupiter Communications and developed a chat client for Prodigy before becoming New York’s Internet It boy of the mid-to-late 1990s with Pseudo.com, the first Internet TV network. The director met her subject in 1999 the way most people met him: by stumbling into one of his infamous downtown loft parties. At the request of Harris, Timoner soon began documenting his activities.
The film follows Harris from the heady pre-millennial Psuedo days to his first massive art project, Quiet, where he invited dozens of artists to live with him in a bunker full of beds (each outfitted with a camera and a TV screen). Life (from sex to showering to everything in between) was filmed constantly, residents were subject to the interrogation of a CIA operative, and no one was allowed to leave.
When the FBI broke up the bunker and made everyone evacuate (the feds thought it was a millennial cult, and as one member says on screen, “We were quacking and walking like a duck”), Harris and his girlfriend Tanya moved into a loft outfitted with motion control cameras in every room, broadcasting their relationship 24 hours a day to an audience of eager chatters. This, too, fell apart; Harris’ sanity was slipping away as fast as his $80 million “on paper” fortune, and in late 2001, the entrepreneur left Manhattan, first for an apple farm, and finally for Ethiopia.
Harris is fascinating as an ego monster, but Timoner’s film is most valuable for demonstrating in detail his simultaneous delusion and prescience. A decade ago, when Harris offered his life up for consumption via online video, it was such a dangerous action that it ruined his only real adult romantic relationship and decimated his fortune. Today, We Live in Public-style lifecasting has become completely mundane.
As I walked out of the Public screening, a stranger recognized me from having seen my picture next to my writing on the Internet and joked, “Hey — YOU live in public!” I cringed at the comment, but it’s true: like many people my age, I’ve Twittered, Tumblred and Facebooked my way through my twenties, creating a hybrid public/private persona which will probably eventually raise existential dilemmas that I cannot, at this point, even contemplate. Over the past decade, our lives have become as fragmented and multi-messaged as the post-9/11 cable news screen.
The difference between this ever more common use of new technologies to live life online, and what Harris was doing with his motion-controlled surveillance cameras and live chat, is that each individual now controls what they choose to broadcast where — and in turn, what kinds of broadcasts to take in, and from whom.
Late in the film, MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe says he’s never heard of Josh Harris, and I imagine most of his site’s users haven’t either. The fact that Harris isn’t a household name for a new generation of web exhibitionists says more about the longevity of Internet fame than most of us would like to admit. Regardless, we’re all living our online lives better in the wake of Harris’ mistakes.