King of the Web Frontier
It’s incredible how much the Web has changed in the three years since documentary filmmaker Doug Block shot Home Page. Sure, I admit it — as much as the commercialization of the Web sorta bugs me, I’m gonna do most of my Christmas shopping not waiting in line at the megamall but waiting online for JPEG-heavy pages to load over my pokey modem. But in 1996, when Block discovered the Web and decided to make a film about it, it was still underground; it was still counterculture. 1996… I’ve got dustbunnies under my bed older than that.
So Home Page is already an historical document, capturing the brief, heady time during which this new medium was charted and explored by online pioneers. But that was incidental to Block’s overt intention, which was to look at how the Web has altered and continues to alter the art of human interaction. The result is fascinating, funny, and often disturbing.
Block found himself initially drawn to personal home pages, and he discovered Swarthmore College student Justin Hall’s shockingly frank, tell-all online diary (still at www.links.net), which had already made Hall legendary when Block wandered onto the Web in ’96. “One dude’s ego run amuck” is how Hall himself describes his site. Block is more generous, comparing Hall’s work to that of Jack Kerouac, a sort of online version of On the Road. I’d liken him more to Davy Crockett, trying to figure out of what possible use all this unmapped cyberspace could be, and having grand adventures while doing so.
Intelligent, contemplative, and obviously something of a puzzle even to himself, Hall isn’t trying to offend by detailing the intimate details of his life for all the world to read online. I don’t think it’s ironic that he was teaching a class in Web ethics at Swarthmore at the same time he was posting nude pictures of himself and offering graphic descriptions of his sex life, to the befuddlement of his girlfriends. “What is private?” Hall wonders — he may be pushing the boundaries in the offline world, but he’s showing us (as many of us have discovered for ourselves) that maybe the boundaries are in different places online. Hall sees himself as the physical embodiment of the Internet: “all connections and no grounding.” His site, and Block’s ultimate quest in Home Page, is to find that new grounding in a new world.
Just as the settling of the physical frontier of the open West changed the American, and ultimately the world culture, so is the settling of cyberspace changing us today. Block doesn’t focus only on Hall — he talks to other Web pioneers who, though they may not realize it, are helping explore and define the edges of right and wrong in this strange new world: Hall’s girlfriends, who eventually find that they don’t mind so much being the subjects of Hall’s graphic ramblings; a married editor at Hotwired, who had an affair that she and her lover both diarized online (her husband doesn’t seem all that upset about it); online guru Howard Rheingold, who failed in an early attempt, with the site Electric Minds, to commercialize this new mode of interaction; and others. For these people, the Web is sort of like a big group therapy session, where the lines of demarcation between what is private and what is public aren’t quite the same as they are offline.
A frontier culture may change the mother culture, but frontiers eventually get tamed, and we see the beginning of that in Home Page. Block follows Hall as he takes a break from school to travel the country, a streetpreacher for the Web, speaking in coffeehouses and community organizations, spreading the good word. But in retrospect, Hall’s most important stop may have been his presentation to the Newspaper Association of America. Both funny and sobering to watch, Hall — a gender bender who wears skirts and piles his long, dreadlocked hair atop his head — is an insane wildman passing on his knowledge, expertise, and enthusiasm for the Web to a room full of dour, middle-aged men in suits. The former may have been the embodiment of the Internet in 1996, but the latter are trying to be such today.
We didn’t see advertisements for Web sites on network television three years ago; today, we can’t avoid them. The Web may be changing the world, but that change is only beginning, as Block reminds us with one of the last shots in Home Page — his young daughter, who loves her computer more than she loves TV, staring enrapt at a computer monitor. Block’s question seems to be: What will her generation do online?