Documentarian Ondi Timoner makes some bold claims in her documentary We Live In Public, beginning with the statement that her subject, Josh Harris, is “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” As one of the first people to realize the potential of the Internet, Harris made millions in the ’90s developing surveys, chatrooms, and streaming-video channels. Then he squandered it all on two large-scale art projects. In one, dubbed “Quiet,” Harris invited a group of New Yorkers to live in a fully monitored bunker with all their desires met and actions exposed; in another, called “We Live In Public,” Harris and his girlfriend planted cameras and microphones around their apartment and streamed the real-time footage online. At the time, Harris’ exploits were the subject of magazine profiles and network-news stories, and yet he’s barely remembered today. On that count, Timoner is correct: Harris is unduly obscure. But was what he accomplished really all that great?
The footage from Harris’ bizarre social experiments undeniably turned heads. “Quiet” in particular was a wild scene, with artists and scenesters spending 24 hours a day getting loaded, naked, and violent, all in full view of Harris’ cameras. “We Live In Public” was more benign at first, until Harris grew bored with sharing his domestic bliss with thousands of viewers and started provoking (and even physically threatening) his girlfriend to spice up the show. Timoner posits Harris’ projects as forerunners of reality TV—although Harris will have to get in line behind An American Family, Real People, and countless daytime talk shows—and she suggests that with YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, we’re all volunteers now in the worldwide fishbowl Harris was trying to forge.
And yet the real story of We Live In Public is how—and why—Harris failed to monetize narcissism and voyeurism. Timoner catches up with Harris after he’s gone bankrupt, as he’s trying to interest the new wave of online moguls in his latest social-media project. This new crew (who’ve never heard of Harris) show him the door, not because they fail to appreciate a visionary, but because a decade of boom and bust have proven that Harris’ puppetmaster approach to social media is a recipe for insolvency. We Live In Public doesn’t show that Harris was a genius so much as that he was a mentally and emotionally unstable egotist, trying to force a revolution in self-broadcasting and connectivity that later happened more naturally. And he lost a lot of people a lot of money in the process. Some pioneer.