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Caught in the Web

November 21st, 2010 by Editor

This week, filmmaker Ondi Timoner (DIG!) guest blogs about her Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film We Live in Public for Hulu. — Editor.

“Are you interested in documenting social history?” Josh Harris, the subject of my documentary, asked me in an unexpected phone call in 1999. Josh didn’t seem to know exactly what he meant by this yet, but he knew he wanted to do something spectacular to mark the turn of the millennium. He believed this next century would mark the takeover of man by machine. The result was the most bizarre and fascinating social experiment I had ever witnessed. “Quiet: We Live In Public” was a bunker which included a “pod” hotel that slept 150 people beneath New York City for 30 days. These “Podwellians” or “citizens” lived together, ate together, showered and went to the bathroom in public, slept together, and shared everything with hundreds of cameras that captured it all. “Everything’s free, except your image,” Josh stated slyly. “That we own.” Little did I know at the time, Josh was yet again predicting the future. He had, after all, built his fortune creating the first-ever Internet market research company, Jupiter Communications, and founded Pseudo.com — the first Internet television network — long before there was broadband. Though socially inept himself, Josh knew human behavior, and he knew that when broadband made it possible to share our lives, we would trade our privacy, and eventually our freedom, for the recognition and connection we so dearly crave. Ten years later, the “pod hotel” has turned into websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube — and we are the Podwellians.

After the SWAT team shut down the bunker on New Year’s Day 2000, Josh rigged his loft with 32 motion controlled surveillance cameras and 66 microphones and announced that he and his girlfriend were going to be the first couple ever to live in public, 24/7 for six months straight. This is the beginning of the biggest, most chilling chapter of this cautionary tale.

We Live in Public explores the dark side of one of the most important and powerful inventions in the last century. Without it we couldn’t have edited or released the film in fact, but any bright light has a dark side. We Live in Public captures the draw and the effect of the Internet on our human psyche and society. While our film premiered at Sundance in January 2009, almost two years later, I’ve noticed a sudden spree of films that are also exploring dark side of the Internet. Films like The Social Network and Catfish also look at the risks of deception in identity and failed intimacy in the digital realm, as well as, once again, the aspects of human behavior that drive us to connect and make the “in” crowd above maintaining our privacy and integrity. Catfish is especially relevant and eerily frightening here. We cannot forget that this is a virtual world and that people can represent themselves any way they want, whether or not its real. And I was particularly struck with the similarities between Josh Harris and the character of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, in The Social Network. They both dearly craved to be the center of the social scene, but were instead the architects of social networks they could observe and exploit. They desired to control and rule a world they manufactured themselves, but also always wanted to be known and recognized in the physical world. The destruction in this human drive becomes starkly evident when Josh turns the camera on himself and lives six months of his own life in public. Zuckerberg never seemed to have this desire, or courage, but he and Josh were both enraptured with the aspects of control that the bunker “pod” hotel and Facebook provided them. It is interesting to consider the control we all feel we have online, as we willingly forfeit our data daily.

We Live in Public is the favorite of my menagerie. The message it carries is so vital, both in looking at the star of the film: Harris is the puppeteer turned puppet — a man who was raised on the electronic calories of TV and mediates his whole life with cameras, eventually ruining even his only chance at intimate love; as well as the people who willingly make themselves the pawns in his chess game, as we do online today, without thinking twice. In fact it wasn’t until 2007, when I saw the first public posting on my wall on Facebook, that I realized Josh’s predictions were coming true. We at Interloper Films pushed to finish the film in eight short months of editing (that’s 5,000 hours down to 88 minutes) to make the Sundance 2009 deadline. I realized we were on the precipice of all that Josh had predicted. Like the Quiet bunker experiment, websites like Facebook and Google had users thinking they were living their lives in public with no cost. However, just one month after the film premiered at Sundance in January 2009, it was discovered that Facebook changed its privacy policy to state they owned any content its users published on the site. Furthermore, Facebook can make changes to this privacy policy without telling us at any time, and our continued use of the site acknowledges these terms of agreement. So tread carefully, for now we are all citizens of the bunker. And your reactions to my film on Hulu are being recorded as you watch… (just kidding, I think!..)

Bon Appétit,
Ondi Timoner

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