Film Review: We Live in Public

As media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Walter Hussman fight to monetise internet content, others are wondering what it means to have their entire life available on the web free of charge.

Josh Harris was once an important cog in the wheel of internet development. His heyday came in the 1990s, when he created the first internet television network, Pseudo.com. An early internet multimillionaire, he soon became known as “the Warhol of the Web”. But his dramatic rise was followed by an even more dramatic fall in 2000, when Pseudo.com filed for bankruptcy and his public image was tarnished by his own project to chronicle his life on the web. Years later, most people have no idea who he is.

The full blog post, on the “We Live in Public” documentary film, is at INTELLIGENT LIFE, and also continues here, after the jump.

Harris’s grim fate as an entrepreneur and web celebrity is the subject of Ondi Timoner’s documentary We Live in Public, which won the 2009 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. After screening as part of the 53rd annual London Film Festival, the film is now in select cinemas in America and Britain.

Timoner follows Harris’s rise as an internet golden boy in the early 1990s, a man with good ideas and the money to back them. But by the end of the decade, Harris’ ideas became obsessive and controlling. He closes the millennium with a project called “Quiet: We Live In Public”, which involved putting 100 artists in a New York City basement and filming every moment of their lives (including showers, sex and visits to the bathroom). His final experiment in online broadcasting was a 30-day, 24-hour surveillance of him and his girlfriend living in their apartment, during which his girlfriend breaks up with him. This, together with the burst of the dotcom bubble and the drama of bankruptcy leads to a breakdown for Harris.

Harris had contacted Timoner in 1999 to document “Quiet”, which explains her access and early coverage. Timoner, who has admitted to being sceptical of Harris’s early projects, has described this film as a metaphor. As Andrew Smith wrote in the Guardian, “she sees Harris as a warning of what our children might become, perpetually connected to millions but starved of intimate contact with a few.”

The film follows Harris as he retreats into seclusion, first as an apple farmer in upstate New York, then as a network CEO in Ethiopia, playing basketball with local kids in his spare time. What he will do next is anyone’s guess. (Perhaps invest in internet addiction companies?)

At the London screening I went to, there were plenty of gasps in response to Harris’s more outlandish comments and broadcast moments. Timoner is clearly trying to illustrate the problems inherent in our increasingly personal relationship with the internet. “We Live In Public” left me with an incredibly strong urge to remove myself from Twitter, delete my MySpace page, dump my LinkedIn profile and go completely offline. Unfortunately, the urge didn’t last long. Perhaps an hour later, I felt compelled (think Death Star tractor beam) to check my email and update my Facebook page status.

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