Internet Narcissism in Beta

08/26/2009 4:00 AM |

We Live in Public
Directed by Ondi Timoner

Sometimes, a movie’s not the best way to tell a story — especially when it comes to non-fiction. Too many recent documentaries fail because they take compelling topics and turn them into bland films: Standard Operating Procedure was a far more insightful New Yorker article than a movie; the cheaply constructed Who Killed the Electric Car? could have been streamlined into a superior Wikipedia entry. But We Live in Public, about “the greatest internet pioneer you’ve never heard of,” serendipitously avoids this pitfall by taking video as its subject. You need to see it in order to understand it. Chronicling the career of Josh Harris, web-video pioneer and social-networking social-experimenter, the movie examines the net-kid’s decade-old happenings, then merely eccentric, and lays blatant their prescient relevance: Exposing, pre-9/11, the disastrous results of freely surrendering one’s privacy to a new, intrusive technology — The Web — Harris is like a time traveler: it’s like revealing the carcinogenic properties of cigarettes while Sir Walter Raleigh was still learning to roll.

At the end of the last millennium, using the millions he’d made during the dot-com boom of the go-go 90s, Harris financed a cultish social experiment called “Quiet”: 100 people lived, room and board included, in a commune-style bunker, where everything, from sex to sleeping to shitting (to, strangely, shooting range practice), was done out in the open and on camera, viewable on any one of the many multi-channeled televisions wired across the compound; it resulted in anarchic bacchanalia. “The freeness,” one person says, “is turning people into beasts.” After the cops shut the project down, Harris soon embarked on another endeavor: he fit a loft with 32 webcams that would broadcast he and his girlfriend’s day-to-day life. After changing the way she and Harris interacted — we behave differently for an audience than we do in private — the venture ended in a breakup, as well as depression, paranoia, and bitterness.

Obviously, the point is that this is how our own YouTube Twitter MySpace obsession ends — with a mean and implosive bang. Harris was testing the extremes of these technologies before most people were even using them at all — looking at what the end of Web 2.0 would look like while the rest of us were clicking through HTML fansites on 28.8K modems. He foresaw how the Internet would encourage our worst self-promotive fantasies. In tweaking Warhol’s dictum that everyone wants 15 minutes of fame in their lifetimes, Harris declares that “people want 15 minutes of fame everyday” — a way to transform the meaningless and mundane into cause for celebrity. (It’s like “getting on to Carson” for sheer gall, without the talent that was once requisite to do so; as such, Harris presaged not only social media and interactive websites but also Jackass and Paris Hilton.) Timoner (DiG!) may make the connection too blatant at times, and she certainly overscores the film — most eye-rollingly when she uses “Virtual Insanity” as the end credits theme — but, with plenty of footage shot over a decade, she also offers a prophetic glimpse into the madness to which our Facebook profiles are likely to lead us. That’s something we could just read about. But it’s much more convincing actually to see it.

Opens August 28