TW Column: Talking Film
By Hope Reese
It’s almost impossible to open a magazine, newspaper, or web browser without seeing references to The Social Network, a movie so popular that its opening weekend gross was just shy of Titanic’s. Moviegoers seem fascinated by Mark Zuckerberg, the morally questionable genius who founded Facebook. How did he change the way we relate to each other online? And how did he capitalize on our willingness to put our faces all over the Internet?
If you’re interested in Zuckerberg, The Social Network is a good place to turn (at least, to the extent the profile in the film is accurate). But if you care about the underlying issues—such as the full-blown virtual identities many of us now have—there’s a better film for you: We Live in Public, a thought-provoking documentary from 2009 that closely explores the nature of personal identity online.
Meet Josh Harris: dot-com-era Internet mastermind, conceptual artist, and social provocateur. In Ondi Timoner’s film, we learn that Harris was experimenting with cutting-edge social networking back when Zuckerberg and other members of the first Facebook Generation (including me) were still in grade school.
In 1993, a decade before social media became widespread, Harris founded Pseudo.com, one of the first websites to stream live video and integrate audience feedback. The concept, novel at the time, was that people would turn to the site for entertainment or news. Harris predicted it would eventually replace cable TV.
Through a series of current interviews and archival footage, Timoner’s documentary deftly narrates Harris’s story, beginning with his early social experiments exploring the concept of public identity. The first was “Quiet,” a radical project in the late 1990s in which 100 preselected people moved into a secret underground lair in Manhattan.
“We built a bunker and showed them the future,” Harris says. Cameras recorded activity in each bunker. Every movement was tracked, documented, and broadcast on screens throughout the warehouse.
Harris’s question was simple: How do people act when they live in front of a camera?
One of the inmates later wrote about his experience on his blog:
In December 1999, I was one of the pod people, living in a sub-basement warren of tiered sleeping capsules, like a Japanese tourist hotel or something out of William Gibson…. We were also constantly on camera, producing our own flow of images. Anyone at the central control booth could watch as we ate, shat, argued, made art, fucked, etc. Theoretically, anyone in the bunker, at any time, could tune into anyone else in the bunker.”
However, Harris’s experiment lasted only 30 days before “Quiet” was shut down for fire-safety violations by the New York City Police, after they were tipped off by a neighbor who heard firearms being shot in the basement below her apartment. Timoner, who was documenting the activities at the time, later told a reporter that the police called the experiment a “millennial cult.”
When “Quiet” was closed, Harris took the concept of full exposure a step further: He decided to shift the cameras onto himself and to stream the footage live online. Harris and his girlfriend Tanya moved in together and made their relationship available for public viewing.
There was “the giddy first month,” Harris remembers, when the pure excitement of having every movement filmed felt revolutionary. Those days, however, didn’t last long. The line between public and private, they discovered, quickly became blurred.
The couple interacted more with their audience (“Where are my keys?” Tanya asked her online viewers) than they did with each other. A particularly disturbing scene in the film shows Tanya storming out of the apartment after Harris tries to force her into sex. The relationship crumbled, and eventually Tanya moved out.
We Live in Public took ten years to make. It began when Harris invited Timoner to document “Quiet.” Timoner later juxtaposed original footage from the experiments with interviews of Harris, Tanya, and others. Through Timoner’s lens, we see Harris as a mad genius coming to grips with the reality he has created for himself. The filmmaker challenges our ideas of social norms, basic human needs, and privacy by showing us how these fundamental needs were pushed to their limits in front of a camera.
Implicit in the film is the question: Just how far would you go in front of a camera? And then the followup: How far would you go using a camera to film others? This question is even more urgent now, following the news of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi’s suicide after a fellow student secretly filmed (and streamed) his sexual encounter with a male partner.
I am a member of the Facebook generation. Had Zuckerberg stayed at Harvard, we would have graduated from college the same year. My friends and I were early adopters of the Internet, and creating online profiles has become routine for us. But more and more, we’re having to grapple with the consequences of oversharing.
My generation is conflicted about our online identities. We debate where to draw the “friendship” line on Facebook. We see real-life relationships affected by our profile updates, our status changes, and the comments others post about us. We change privacy settings. We quit Facebook. Many of us are afraid of how much others can see.
Harris’s story disturbs me. Through his experiments, he provided evidence that people in the spotlight are likely to lose their sense of self and their personal boundaries. The inhabitants of “Quiet” became hypnotized and started breaking all the rules of civilized human interaction. Their sense of privacy was skewed; their intimate acts became public entertainment. After a while in front of the camera, they could no longer tell what was normal.
Whether we like it or not, most of us are part of the fabric of the Internet. Many of us are learning to adjust settings, control privacy, and create positive images for ourselves online. We have learned about—and, in some cases, witnessed firsthand—the dangers of overexposure and of misrepresentation online: consequences such as breakups, lost friendships, job firings, and even suicide. We are learning to live in public.
In 1999, there were 100-odd people choosing to “live in public” in a bunker in New York. Now, on Facebook alone, there are more than 500 million.
Hope Reese works at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and is working on her master’s degree in journalism at the Harvard Extension School.
Her work has been published in the Charles River Review and Spare Change News. She recently started a history project to learn more about her grandmother, which she is documenting on Nieman Girl’s Blog.