Scenes from the Web's callow youth

"Home Page" documentary offers 1996's look and feel, but not much in the way of insight.

By Scott Rosenberg
July 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
main article image

The concept of supersonic "Internet time" became a cliché at, er, Web speed. But for a sense of just how fast time moves on the Net, just watch a couple of minutes of "Home Page" -- a documentary about those wacky kids who made the Web their life back in the mid-'90s, and splayed their lives out on the Web. (It premieres on HBO Signature Sunday at 8 p.m.) What once must have seemed like the exploration of a novel subject now feels like a period piece.

The film was mostly shot in 1996, when -- for many at least, including filmmaker Doug Block -- the Web was strange and unknown new terrain. Never mind that by then it had actually been in existence for a good half-decade, or that the Mosaic-Netscape browser had become wildly popular two years before, turning the Web into a mass phenomenon overnight. One of the aspects of the Web that "Home Page" nicely captures was its ability -- still fresh three years ago and now mostly lost -- to allow each new person who wandered its links to feel as though he was on a private journey of discovery.

Advertisement:

That, plainly, is how Block felt. A veteran documentary filmmaker, he looked out at the Web and was floored by the welter of personal storytelling it had unleashed. First he started looking for "cyberstars" (a word that New Yorker writer John Seabrook somehow was able to use with a straight face in 1996, when Block interviewed him) and found one in Justin Hall, then a Swarthmore undergraduate who'd built one of the Web's first links sites and online diaries. Then the filmmaker got bitten by the Web bug himself and decided to build his own Web site.

If "Home Page" has a focus, it's on Hall's peregrinations within and beyond the Web underground. With his hair up in an improbably high knot and his enthusiastic energy and word-rate ratcheted even higher, Hall embodies one vision of the Web circa 1996 -- as a kind of haven for funky eccentrics who spent their nights coding HTML and their days envisioning a digital utopia. At the same time that he is putting on a kind of "Justin Show" for Block's camera and pouring the intimate details of his daily life onto his Web site, Hall is also proselytizing for the Web, teaching people to build their own pages and encouraging them to use the new medium in a personal way.

In hindsight, it looks like a culture clash waiting to happen -- one foreshadowed in "Home Page" via a funny clip showing Hall jabbering about the Web's wonders to a conference hall full of uncomprehending gray-haired news executives in suits. For the Web to truly become a mass medium, it needed to disassociate itself from the freaky imagery of an icon like Hall and make itself approachable and unthreatening -- which has largely happened since, with the profusion of portal strategies and filtering technologies.

Advertisement:

So in one sense "Home Page" seems to provide a straightforward time capsule from the Web's wild young pre-commercial days, before the Internet had become associated in the public mind with youthful millionaires, day trading and online auctions. It's an era that Roger Ebert, in a piece for Yahoo Internet Life on "Home Page," describes as a "lost paradise" -- but any attentive viewer of the documentary and its confused, lonely subjects can see just how far off that phrase is.

In any case, the film's snapshots of the era, particularly for those who lived through it, have their Proustian-madeleine-like qualities: Here's the old HotWired offices, with the Suck cots in the corner! Here's a HotWired editor grinning, "We're going public soon!" Here's the launch of Howard Rheingold's doomed Electric Minds, with the staff gathered to chant in a circle!

To a great extent, unfortunately, "Home Page" is a kind of "you had to be there" movie. If you weren't there, you probably won't get a very clear picture of what was happening in those snapshots -- or what was motivating the young people who were so avidly chronicling their private lives on the Web (and who continue to do so).

Advertisement:

"Home Page" doesn't help you understand, for instance, how Justin Hall became a cyberstar in the first place. His "Links From the Underground" page provided, among many other things, one of the Web's first directories of sex-related sites (a function that Hall later de-emphasized). His autobiographical pages may have been the more innovative part of his site, but those sex links were what drew the traffic. In a similar example of lack of context, "Home Page" contains several behind-the-scenes looks at the launch of Electric Minds, without once telling viewers what the site was -- an experiment in mixing up online community discussion with original content.

From Block's perspective, the most important fact about the Web is that, for some people, it has blurred the line between public and private and provided a chance to present personal stories to a potentially wide audience. That's significant enough, but it's not exactly unique to the Web; the autobiographical impulse was motivating authors and performance artists and filmmakers long before the term "home page" ever entered the vernacular. Block has written that the film is ultimately about a "search for intimacy" -- but most of what's on display is people making pretty conventional messes of their private lives, and using the Web to do so in mildly innovative ways.

Advertisement:

In any case, personal storytelling is only one part of what makes the Web exciting -- and in concentrating on it, "Home Page" neglects the entire realm of what we call, for lack of a better word, "interactivity." For every Web-page creator obsessed with telling his own tale to the world, there are hundreds or thousands of Net users who just want to hook up with other people and talk. Web-based community may have been in a more primitive state back in "Home Page's" 1996, but if the movie were your only source you'd never know it existed at all.

Ironically for a film about personal storytelling, "Home Page" is at its most awkward and unsatisfying in Block's attempts to turn the camera on himself and a midlife crisis that is alluded to but never fully limned. Shooting interviews with his wife and scenes with his young daughter, the filmmaker plainly feels he's exploring the concept of "home" in the digital era. He's on some kind of journey himself, I guess, but he doesn't clue us in much on where it's from or where it's headed.

For that, you'd have to turn to Block's own Web site and online diary, which he started during the making of "Home Page" and continues to update. They provide at least some of the self-explanation and -examination that the film only hints at. In a similar way, if you really want to get to know Justin Hall, you'll learn far more by spending two hours browsing his voluminous online autobiography than watching "Home Page."

Advertisement:

It may simply be that film is not a very good medium for capturing the essence of the Web, its history and its innovators. If you want to know what a few celebrated home page builders in 1996 looked like, how they dressed or what they sounded like, "Home Page" may be diverting. But if you want to know what drove them and what they did and thought and where it led, you'll do a lot better just following their links.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg


Related Topics ------------------------------------------