Josh Harris might just be too good a subject for a film. A dotcom millionaire, Harris was unerringly ahead of his time, seeing promise in the internet before it really existed, focusing on chat at the dawn of services like Prodigy, moving into web-only TV before there was even infrastructure for it, and putting the home life of himself and his girlfriend online 24/7 all the way back in 2001. (The fact that by the end of “We Live in Public” he’s been forced to flee to Ethiopia to escape his creditors seems today merely more evidence of forward thinking.) Such was Harris’ foresight that the filmmaker he picked to document his work some ten years ago was Ondi Timoner, now the only director to twice win the top nonfiction prize at Sundance. Timoner was there to capture his rise and the fall and to get some truly spectacular footage, which she assembles with plenty of snap, crackle and pop. But she can’t bear not to editorialize on top of it all, and the conclusion she draws, a cautionary one about how putting your personal life on the web in exchange for the attention it brings is a faustian bargain, seems as dated as a dial-up connection.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Harris, it’s probably more like: Being ahead of the curve doesn’t mean a damn thing, not unless you’re also able to act on it. When Harris pools together the last of his once formidable theoretical fortune and crawls back to the tech world years later in search of funding, new business plan in hand, no one even knows who he is. And he isn’t perfectly clear on that point either. He’s a web entrepreneur at the dawn of the age of internet fame, a pop-eyed geek who mistakes himself for a celebrity and puts his business on the backburner in order to pursue experiments like Quiet, an extravagant month-long art installation/party in which attendees wore uniforms, slept in pods, showered and shat in the open and were filmed the whole time. It’s a project Harris claimed reflected his vision of what life in the wired future would be like. When that wound down, he convinced his new girlfriend Tanya Corrin to move in with him for a 100 day adventure in continually webcast cohabitation, broadcast 24/7 at weliveinpublic.com. The many cameras around their Manhattan apartment mean that the implosion of their relationship by day 81 is squirmingly well documented.
“We Live in Public” often feels like it’s on fast forward, Harris’ fortune won and lost in an hour, the quick-cut images of the Silicon Alley heyday bleeding into ones of 9/11 and the more somber and sober New York that followed, producing a sense of overloaded shell-shock. As we get a decade on from the dot com days, the common reading of the era seems to be one of hubris and also of failed idealism, but Harris’ manipulation of everyone around him was misanthropic, playing off their worst exhibitionist tendencies, his idea of an internet-shaped world fascistic. And yet, even as his business was failing and his lover walking out the door, he did everything he could to maintain his place in the online game, and maybe that’s the most telling thing all.