You might want to read the book’s Introduction before reading this first chapter — if you haven’t already…
Putting Everything Out There [Justin Hall]
In 1994, Justin Hall invented oversharing. Of course, we didn’t have a name yet for the compulsion to tell the online world too much about yourself. Back then, Hall was just an eccentric nineteen-year-old college student who recorded minutiae of his life on his personal website; no one knew that the self-revelation he found so addictive would one day become a temptation for millions.
Beginning at the dawn of the Web, Hall parked himself at the intersection of the Bay Area’s remnant counterculture and Silicon Valley’s accelerating economy and started writing down everything he saw. His website, at www.links.net, became a comprehensive personal gazette and archive, full of ephemeral details and intimate epiphanies, portraits of the Web’s young builders and nude pictures of himself.
Hall, who is fair and thin and lanky — he looks a bit like one of Tolkien’s elves — has the affable grin of someone who is fully at ease with strangers. If you took away his nonconformist streak, he could make a great salesman. You could even see him running for office and winning, in some alternate dimension where no one cared that he’d littered the public record with radical opinions and accounts of his illegal drug use, or that he frequently undermined his considerable charisma by intentionally irritating people. He often begins public speaking engagements by stepping to the podium, facing his audience, and silently beaming as the seconds tick by and the crowd begins to wonder what’s going on. He seems perfectly comfortable making other people uncomfortable.
For more than a decade, Hall’s site had presented an open window onto his life. “It’s so much fun,” he’d say, “putting everything out there.” January 2005 seemed no different. He kicked off the new year with a blunt four-word post: “I really enjoy urinating.” He told the story of a mustache-growing competition with a friend. He mentioned meeting “a smart, motivated gal” who wanted to collaborate on a story involving angels.
Then, in the middle of the month, the window slammed shut. All signs of the layers upon layers of Hall’s personal history stretching back to 1994 were gone. In their place was a little search box and a fifteen-minute video titled Dark Night.
The video, which is still available on YouTube, opens with Hall’s face, half in shadow, filling the frame. He begins: “What if inti — ” Then he cuts himself off as his bleary eyes widen. He looks away, lets out an exasperated breath, and starts over:
So what if intimacy happens in quiet moments and if you’re so busy talking and searching and looking and crying and yelling and — then you won’t ever find it.
A subtitle appears below Hall’s face: “I sort of had a breakdown in January 2005.”
Hall was an accomplished storyteller in his own callow, motormouthed way. But this story emerged only fitfully, in raw fragments. Hall, it seemed, had met a woman. One who “opened me up like crazy.” He’d fallen head over heels. Bliss! But the new relationship had clashed, somehow, with his confessional writing on the Web. His new beloved, Hall hinted, didn’t relish the glare.
What if a deeply connective personal activity you do, that’s like religion, that you practice with yourself, that’s a dialogue with the divine, turns out to drive people away from you? . . . I published my life on the fucking internet. And it doesn’t make people wanna be with me. It makes people not trust me. And I don’t know what the fuck to do about it . . .
Dark Night played out its psychodramatics with Blair Witch-style lighting and confessional ferocity, like an Ingmar Bergman therapy scene reshot by a geeky art student. The video was awkward, sometimes embarrassing, and more than a little unnerving. It made you fear for Hall’s mental state — you wanted to pick up the phone and talk him down from the ledge. Still, for all its raw atmospherics, it was hardly naive. Hall had been creating autobiographical media all his life, and most recently he’d been studying filmmaking at USC. Dark Night was, in its own ragged way, a calculated work, not some piece of “turn on the camera, then forget about it” verite.
It wasn’t the soul-baring that made Dark Night a shocker. Rather, it was the prospect that Justin Hall’s soul-baring days might be at an end. On the subject of self-exposure, Hall had always been an absolutist. When he began writing on the Web, the word transparency hadn’t yet been drafted into service in its contemporary meaning: openness, no secrets, all questions answered. But transparency had been Hall’s guiding principle from the start. He had turned his website into a glass house. Only now, it seemed, he no longer wanted to live there.
@ @ @
In 1988, when Hall was thirteen, he got his first glimpse of the Internet. He’d already been online a few years, dialing up private bulletin- board services (BBSes) from his mom’s computer in their Chicago home, looking for videogame tips, and sticking around to enjoy the camaraderie. The fun of tapping into a national BBS based in California ended quickly when his mother looked at the phone bill; from then on, hometown boards would have to do.
Hall’s father was gone. An alcoholic, he’d killed himself when Justin was eight, a story Justin would later tell, prominently and unflinchingly, on his site. His mother, a successful lawyer, worked long hours and traveled a lot, so he was, as he put it, “raised by a series of nannies.” In 1988 a new one arrived, a medical student at Northwestern who saw Justin’s enthusiasm for going online and showed the youngster the nascent Internet, then a university-only enclave. (This was well before the Web’s easyto- use interface tamed the technical difficulties of using the Internet for the masses; it took geek tenacity just to connect.) “It wasn’t just a bunch of fifteen-year-olds in Chicago on their computers,” Hall says. “It was people all over the country. And the scope of what the people were talking about was fantastic.” His gaze was drawn to Usenet, the collection of Internet-based forums that, in the pre-Web days, offered the most reward to an adolescent looking for online kicks. “People were getting nerdy there,” Hall recalls, “about this specific Frank Zappa record, or this specific transgender bent, or this specific drug experience. I was extremely turned on.”
Hall called the university and tried to get an Internet account for himself. Sorry, he was told, we don’t just give them out. What does a teenager do in such circumstances? A teenager borrows a friend’s password. But the Northwestern system administrators eventually figured out what Hall was up to and kicked him off.
Hall finally got his own Internet account when he went off to Swarthmore in September 1993. The dorm rooms there had just been networked; for Hall, this meant ” up-all-night information.” That December, John Markoff, the New York Times technology reporter, wrote an introduction to the new World Wide Web and the Mosaic browser, describing them to his readers as “a map to the buried treasures of the Information Age.” Hall read the article — on paper — and then went and downloaded Mosaic. “It was hugely exciting. Now you can use a mouse to get to all this information! Now you can put pictures and text on the same page!”
At that early date, the experts, and the money, agreed that the future of online communication was in the hands of the “big three” commercial online services (America Online, Compuserve, Prodigy); technology giants, such as Microsoft, Apple, and IBM; and cable companies like Time Warner, which were sinking fortunes into interactive TV. The Internet had been a backwater accessible only to eggheads and nerds; it was hard to get on to, hard to use, and its nether regions, like Usenet, were uncensored and untamed. The whole thing was simply not ready for prime time.
That was precisely what attracted Justin Hall. “The big online ser – vices always felt like a magazine stand at a grocery store, whereas Usenet felt like Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley,” he remembers. “Then when I saw the Web I knew I had to try it, because the quality of pages that I saw made me think it couldn’t be expensive or hard to put them up.” On January 22, 1994, Hall put up his first Web page. He published it by downloading a free server program and running it on his Macintosh Powerbook 180 laptop plugged into Swarthmore’s campus network.
Like so much of the early Web, “Justin’s Home Page” warned visitors that it was “under construction,” and most of its information was about its own technology — including a list of the tools Hall had used to put it together. But if you scrolled down a bit you’d find, nestled under the header “Some Personal Shit,” a photo of the long-haired Hall smirking next to Ollie North. Also a couple of links to bootleg recordings of two bands, Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros. And, finally, a strange blackand- white UPI photo of Cary Grant popping a tab of LSD into his grinning-wide mouth.
Writing about yourself was not unknown on the Web, even at that point, and neither was cataloging your offbeat obsessions. Hall says that in his early postings he took inspiration from a site created by a programmer at the University of Pennsylvania, Ranjit Bhatnagar. Beginning in November 1993, “Ranjit’s HTTP playground” provided offbeat links, along with a “lunch server.” Each day, Bhatnagar would carefully record what he’d had for lunch. The page was, of course, in reverse chronological order. Although the “lunch server” was as much a pun as anything else, it foreshadowed a future in which people would use blogs to record all manner of quotidian data points.
If Hall was not the very first person to build a funky personal site, he was the first to find a wide audience. His site, which he soon renamed Justin’s Links from the Underground, gained speedy notoriety. This was partly because it provided valuable “what’s new?”-style listings with an emphasis on the unconventional, including an inevitably popular list of sex-related links (most of which look charmingly tame compared to today’s pornographic Web). Hall took pride in his link-connoisseurship; he wouldn’t link to the front page of sites that had already made it on the NCSA What’s New page, but he might point his readers to some noteworthy tidbit he’d found a few levels down on one of those sites.
Hall promoted his new site, submitting it to anyone and everyone who was maintaining lists of websites. Links from the Underground’s popularity also owed something to all that up-all-night energy Hall invested in frequent site updates. But mostly, people flocked to Links from the Underground for its lively personality. It may at times have been sophomoric, self-indulgent, or gross, but it was never boring. In 1994 the Web party was just starting up, but it was evident to Hall that he’d have an easier time joining it in the San Francisco Bay Area than in Chicago or Pennsylvania. Once, back in Hall’s high school days, his eye had been caught by an ad, shouting in neon across the full length of the side of a bus, for a new magazine called Wired. He picked up a copy at Tower Records and fell in love. “I’d been working at a software store, so I knew all about computer magazines, but this one had people on the cover. So the first day I got it I actually called and left a voice mail for [editor] Louis Rossetto. ‘Your magazine is awesome. My name is Justin, I live in Chicago, and I can connect you to the hacker pirate underground scene and the BBSes.’”
“Oddly,” Hall deadpans, “he never called me back.”
At Swarthmore, Hall once again took aim at Wired; he set his heart on a summer internship at the magazine’s San Francisco office. He phoned each department at the magazine in turn. “It was like, give me the custodial department — I’ll empty trash cans! I just wanna be around. And they’re like, no. No, no, no.” Finally he asked for the online department, which was then in the early stages of planning a commercial website called Hotwired. The woman he got on the line, Julie Petersen, suggested he email her with the address of his website; he said, “Why don’t you look at it right now?” She typed in the URL, and then he heard her laugh — she’d found the photo of Cary Grant dropping acid. He got his interview, and later his internship.
When the Hotwired crew gathered for an introductory Thai dinner, Hall found himself seated next to the editor of the site, Howard Rheingold, the veteran of the venerable WELL online forum and author of The Virtual Community. Rheingold turned to the teenager next to him and asked, “What brings you to Hotwired?”
Hall looked him in the eye solemnly and replied, “The opportunity to work with you.”
Later Rheingold wrote, “Either the guy was such a brazen suckup as to be a genius of the genre, or he was a wiseass who was laying on the irony, or he just said the first thing that came into his mind. In any case, I went for the straightforward audacity of it. He sure blew my icebreaker to oblivion.”
At Hotwired, Justin Hall found a community of partners in audacity. No longer a lone webhead, he was now surrounded by other ardent geeks. Yet even in such company he was a rarity: at the ripe age of nineteen, he was already a Web veteran. He had plenty of hands-on experience in building a widely visited site — but none in navigating the labyrinth of the business world.
Hotwired’s birth was difficult. As the October 1994 launch neared, Rossetto began to realize how important the site would be for the future of the magazine, and he seized control of the project from Rheingold and Jonathan Steuer, Wired magazine’s original online leader. Rheingold had imagined a “global jam session,” but Rossetto wanted something less funky and more flashy. To Rheingold, the Web was about community; Rossetto saw it as a brand extension. Hotwired would feature the Web’s first banner ads, and Rossetto decided to require visitors to register before accessing its pages, to gather demographic data for the advertisers. The young idealists at Hotwired, including Hall, saw the registration requirement as an abomination. In their view, Rossetto was selling out the Web’s populist patrimony for a mess of marketing pottage. He dismissed their perspective as one big stoner pipe dream and declared that “the era of public-access Internet has come to an end.” Despite the proclamation, Justin’s Links, a one-person operation with zero commercial ambition, remained better known and (at times) attracted more visitors than Hotwired did during its first year.
At that point in the Web’s evolution, if you wanted to post a personal website, it was understood that it would take the form of Your Home Page — a little personal bio, maybe links to some stuff you’d written, maybe some more links to other sites you liked, perhaps a photo of you or your cat. That’s pretty much where Hall had started, too. But as he steadily added pages of autobiographical anecdotes, portraits of relatives and friends, photos, personal artwork, and observations about the Web itself, his site quickly grew into something more ambitious and unique. Justin loved to link, not just to point to interesting pages he’d found on other people’s sites, but to build elaborate cross-references into his own storytelling.
Hypertext — the academic term that described the sort of writing-with- clickable-links that the Web relied on — had long been a plaything for experimental fiction authors, for dabblers in a popular Macintosh program called Hypercard, and for authors of the short-lived interactive CD-ROM genre. Now the Web was popularizing hypertext, and Justin Hall was determined to use it as its theorists had imagined — not just as a convenient way to hop from one website to another, but as a subtle and potent tool for creating webs of meaning. “I really thought I could create this structure that would reflect everything, absorb everything, re-create the patterns of my mind,” he says.
Indeed, as Hall feverishly dumped the contents of his life into Links from the Underground, the site began to look like the inside of a brain — a neural network of cross-referenced memories and hotlinked dreams. That made it feel novel, and fun, and truly “webby.” But it was also kind of a mess. If you wanted to get lost inside Justin’s head, it was great, but it was hard to get your own head around it. As Hall began to attract repeat visitors, they had a tough time figuring out where to look for the latest material.
Hypertext was alluring, but hypertext overload was off-putting. Most of us apprehend stories more easily in time than in space. We’re accustomed to a beginning, middle, and end — not necessarily in that order, but with some order that the storyteller has mapped for us. By late 1995, Justin’s Links from the Underground remained phenomenally popular, but it was beginning to feel like an overgrown garden.
@ @ @
Hall was long gone from Hotwired by then — he’d returned to Swarthmore after six months. But he was far from the last “iconoclastic smartass” (Rheingold’s phrase) to grace its payroll. In the summer of 1995, Carl Steadman was working as the site’s production director, and Joey Anuff was his assistant. Both young men were full of ideas and strong opinions about how the Web really worked. They were also frustrated by the inexplicable failure of Wired’s honchos to listen to those ideas and opinions. So, that August, working after hours from the back corner of the Hotwired office, they began putting their ideas into practice with a new side project called Suck.com — conceived as a sort of Mad magazine for a new generation of cubicle laborers to consume at their desks.
In several ways, Suck.com was the opposite of Links from the Underground. Where Hall set out to tell all under his real name, Suck’s writers lobbed their spitballs from pseudonymous cover. (Even most of their Hotwired colleagues were in the dark about their identity at first.) Where Hall’s links aimed to create personal meaning, Suck used links with panache, sarcastically, as a literary device — hypertext as a new outlet for double entendre. Where Hall was full of the young Web’s utopian fervor — its “Prodigious Personal Publishing Potential,” as one of his pages put it — Steadman and Anuff shot darts at each new hype balloon. They cast themselves as Menckenesque cynics, wedding the analytical vocabulary of the literary theory they’d studied in college to a late-night-TV comedy irony that said, “The world is corrupt, and so are we.” “At Suck,” their introductory manifesto read, “we abide by the principle which dictates that somebody will always position himself or herself to systematically harvest anything of value in this world for the sake of money, power and/or egofulfillment. We aim to be that somebody.” Their timing was good: Suck started up on the immediate heels of Netscape’s August 1995 public stock offering, which kicked off the first cycle of Internet-investment mania.
All these traits helped turn Suck into a Web-underground sensation (though by contemporary standards its traffic numbers were minuscule). But Steadman and Anuff’s most influential innovation was their simplest. At the time, most ambitious sites had adopted a magazine format — first Hotwired, quickly joined by a succession of sites like Urban Desires, Feed, Word, Salon, Slate, and many others. They all had front pages that served as tables of contents and linked to article pages; they all updated their sites at stately intervals with “issues” consisting of new tables of contents and new batches of articles. Steadman’s job involved analyzing the Hotwired server logs to understand how visitors were using the site, so he quickly saw what each novice Web publisher would learn in turn: people flocked to a website only when they knew they were going to find something new. If you published a new issue on Monday, traffic spiked, then dipped for the rest of the week. So Suck’s founders tossed the whole issue concept overboard and posted a new essay on its front page every weekday. In the process they demonstrated to everyone else on the Web that the medium would work not through regularly spaced issues, but through as fast a stream of updates as you were capable of creating. Websites, it became clear, were less about subscription than about addiction.
By the end of 1995, Steadman and Anuff had tired of their grueling schedule of overnighters, and Rossetto had finally traced the source of this new underground Web sensation back to his own server room. So he bought it from Steadman and Anuff for $30,000 and some stock, gave them new titles, and sent them forth to turn Suck into a business. Wired held an anniversary party in January 1996. Justin Hall showed up, looking for old friends and free food, and ran into the Suck duo. They were “probably the folks in the room closest to my personal publishin’ with distinctive tude outlook,” as he wrote in his account of the party — but they taunted him. Justin had been a Web pioneer, but now he had “too many links till you get to the links.” Suck had demonstrated the Web’s true pace. Why wasn’t Justin updating Links from the Underground every day?
Hall accepted the challenge. He had always stored his personal stories on his server in a folder named “/vita” that in turn contained nested subfolders (all of which would then turn up in a page’s Web address — for instance, “http://www.links.net/vita/fam/mom/”). Now he added a new folder, “/daze,” to hold date-stamped journal entries. Each day’s entry would appear on the links.net home page, then get archived in /daze. The first entry, for January 10, explained:
daily thoughts, a useful notion
I met again the two guys who run suck.com
again last night
at a Wired anniversary party
both pleasant misanthropists
typical, Joey said he used to love my pages
but now there’s too many layers to my links
at suck, you get sucked immediately, no
layers to content.
they’re urging folks to make it their
(it changes daily)
sounds like a good idea to me,
I think I’m gonna have a little somethin’ new
at the top of www.links.net
This new, linear incarnation of Justin’s Links turned the site into more of a conventional diary — albeit one that continually linked back into the thickets of Hall’s “/vita” folder. The Web already had a small but growing population of diarists — people like Alexis Massie of the Web ‘zine After- Dinner and Carolyn Burke, a Canadian whose online diary, begun in January 1995, is usually credited as the first. But the work of these diarists typically turned inward; its purpose was primarily personal. Justin, thanks to his early start, his service as a hub of valuable links, and his own spasms of self-promotion, was already a public figure. His daily updates served a dual purpose: his readers kept up with his life, but they also got a fly-on-the-wall view of the burgeoning Bay Area Web community, because he’d placed himself at its center. After his stint at Wired, he’d been shuttling back and forth between Swarthmore and San Francisco. He found a home at Cyborganic, a hangout in the South of Market warehouse district for the Web industry’s freakier elements, and began furiously building Web pages about all the characters he encountered there.
At the start of 1996, the Web was entering its first conflict with the American political system. Newt Gingrich’s Republicans had just taken over Congress, fueled by the emotions of the so-called culture wars. And it was an election year. So it was hardly surprising that the anarchic new medium quickly sparked an allergic reaction on Capitol Hill. Unlike the commercial online services, there was nobody in charge of the Web, no one to keep it safe for the children. Skeptics in business and government had warned that the Web’s openness would cause trouble and provoke a backlash of censorship. And, as if to illustrate their point on cue, Justin Hall had stepped right out of the national id. With his outlandish hair (he’d taken to bundling it in a knot that towered eight inches above his head), his trippy Technicolor outfits (heavily influenced by the style of his mentor, Rheingold), and his cringe-inducingly frank posts, he embodied everything that middle Americans might fear about inviting the Web into their homes.
The politicians who passed the Communications Decency Act in February 1996 — which criminalized the transmission to minors of “obscene or indecent” material, or descriptions of sexual acts — said they were targeting commercial pornographers. But at that point in the Web’s evolution, there weren’t a whole lot of commercial pornographers to be found — probably because there was no obvious and simple way for them to make any money. What you could readily find was “the sexy stuff” to which Justin’s site had always linked.
The courts eventually struck down the CDA, leaving Justin and every other Web publisher free to keep “putting everything out there” — but not before the conflict had inspired a deluge of Web pages espousing freedom of expression. Like many other Web devotees that month, Hall posted an impassioned critique of the law:
am I afraid that my 5 year old nephew elias will find something on the internet he might be too young to see?
at 8, was I too young to have my real time father commit suicide?
outrageous sex and violence surrounds us. I was surelydamaged by his death, but I can not imagine it hidden
from me . . . .
you can’t make people shut up. they will find a way to say what they want to, if they really need to. that’s what’s wonderful about the internet. they can say it, and you don’t have to read it.
if you try to make them shut up, you will spend a lot of energy trying to stop other people from doing their thing.
instead, spend your energy doing your thing.
knowing that I can’t expect to stop someone else’s stupid shit, I wanted to provide a positive alternative. Perhaps if folks are after sex and images of naked folks, if they see something relatively healthy and comfortable, they won’t feel so weird about themselves or those issues. I should be arrested!
On the words “something relatively healthy and comfortable,” Hall linked to a page of “nekkid” photos of himself — examples, he wrote, of “healthy nudity.”
Before the Web, the only people you’d find exposing themselves in public were small children, prank-happy fraternity flashers, the occasional actual pervert — and let’s not forget the performance artists. The CDA fight took place against the backdrop of a series of previous conflicts between provocateur performers and the government — notably the so-called “NEA Four,” sexually frank performance artists whose small grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were vetoed by appointees of the first Bush administration in 1990. These artists and their peers had learned firsthand some of the possibilities and dangers of uncompromising personal storytelling in public. But Hall and all the other early Web self-chroniclers who exposed themselves online had a big advantage over these predecessors: their websites cost only a few dollars; to reach a public online, who needed a grant?
On the surface, Hall’s exhibitionist antics recalled the work of the infamous Karen Finley — who drove conservatives nuts by smearing chocolate on her nude body on stage. But Finley, for all her notoriety, had a social critic’s agenda and a dark vision of the human penchant for inflicting pain. Hall was more of a young naif, a digital Candide recording his experiences getting knocked about by the realities of the Web business. That made Justin’s Links feel a bit like an adolescent monologue by Spalding Gray transposed to the Web. Gray, the raconteur who sat at a desk with a glass of water and told wry stories from his life, was at the peak of his popularity at the time Hall began posting, but Hall was only slightly familiar with Gray’s work — he’d once watched the movie of Gray’s monologue Swimming to Cambodia. The parallels between the two men are purely coincidental, yet they’re striking nonetheless: As with Gray (whose mother had killed herself), Hall’s calling to public autobiography was driven in part by the trauma of a parental suicide. Gray was known for performing a piece titled Interviewing the Audience, in which he’d invite theatergoers onstage and coax their tales out of them. Similarly, Hall had always dedicated a big chunk of his time and pages to teaching and proselytizing for his faith in self-expression on the Web.
At the start, the way Justin saw it, he was a collector of links. He particularly loved sharing links to “weird shit” — underground art, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, stuff he wanted people to see and feared might not make it through more respectable filters. “But it became pretty clear to me that you would only get a certain amount of weird shit if you tried to write it all yourself,” he recalls. “The best weird shit comes from other people — because it’s weird to you.” So instead of trying to build more “weird shit” sites of his own, Hall decided — in the “teach a man to fish” tradition — that it would be easier and smarter to show other people how to do it.
Teaching people to make Web pages also gave Hall a way to correct a “conversational imbalance” and deflect the focus from himself — a focus he’d hungrily sought, but was beginning to find monotonous. (“There was always a German camera crew following Justin around,” one former colleague remembers.) “At some point I was like, this is great — thank you for paying attention to me. Now let’s stop talking about me. What about you?” he recalls.
In the earliest days of Justin’s Links, people started emailing Hall with questions about HTML, the simple text-formatting code used to build Web pages. To save time he wrote and posted a quick tutorial. Later a little icon appeared at the bottom of every page on links.net: “Publish Yo’ Self,” it read, and linked to a page headlined: “You are about to be let in on the big Web secret: HTML is easy as hell!”
A famous magazine cover from the early days of the British punk rock scene in the 1970s featured some crude fingerboard sketches labeled, This is an A chord. This is an E chord. “NOW FORM A BAND.” In the same spirit, Hall told his readers, in effect, “This is an <a> link. This is a <p> tag. Now post your page!”
The missionary ideal increasingly drove Hall’s work. When the filmmaker Doug Block began interviewing Hall in 1996, collecting material for a documentary about personal Web pages, Hall grabbed the camera, turned it on Block, and challenged him to start his own website. At the end of the Swarthmore term in spring 1996, Hall posted a notice telling his readers to “put me up for a night in your town and I’ll teach you how to build Web pages.” He spent the summer traveling by bus, from Pennsylvania down through the deep South, into Texas and up into Kansas, talking at community centers and coffeeshops and churches, preaching the profane gospel of HTML.
Block’s camera caught him talking to reporters at the Wichita Eagle, spewing at hyperspeed: “I really feel like this is a wonderful blessing, a wonderful power that’s been given to me, and so I want to share this with as many people as I can . . . . Every high school’s got a poet. Whether it’s a rich high school or a poor high school, they got somebody who’s into writing, who’s into getting people to tell their stories. You give ‘em access to this technology, and all of a sudden they’re telling stories in Israel, they’re telling stories in Japan, they’re telling stories to people in their town that they never could have been able to talk to. And that — that’s a revolution.”
@ @ @
At the apex of his Web-pioneer celebrity, Justin Hall was a human transmitter, beaming forth on all possible frequencies. The words gushed out of him in public. Stories spilled out onto his website. Even his outrageous look — with hair emerging from his pate in a column and then spilling down again, like a freeze-frame image of a fountain — seemed to reflect the flow of everything Justin from his head to the world. Whether all this hyperactivity represented fecundity or incontinence, it plainly could not last forever.
At the end of the summer of 1996, Hall cut his Johnny Appleseed tour short to take a job at Howard Rheingold’s new Electric Minds site, an effort to unite professional journalism with community discussion groups. EMinds didn’t last more than about six months, but it was long enough for Hall to develop wrist pain from repetitive strain injury. Too much all-night typing will do that. He took a break from the Web, traveling to Honduras the next summer, writing out diaries in longhand. He returned to Swarthmore to stick it out through graduation in spring of 1998. Now what?
If Hall’s story was a classic bildungsroman, a young person’s passage from innocence to experience, then he was about to begin his wanderjahre, the years of rootless travel and questing for purpose. In 1998 it was easy for a champion of what Louis Rossetto had dismissed as the “Public Access Internet” to feel defeated. Hall still updated his /daze entry every day. But the dotcom boom was roaring, pumping the NASDAQ index full of helium, and the Web, it was generally understood, was fulfilling its destiny by becoming a giant shopping mall. As part of Hall’s Swarthmore course work, he had written (and, of course, posted) an epic poem titled “The Wyrd of Wired”; it looked back on the early Hotwired crew as visionary populist fighters locked in battle with Rossetto, the sneakerwearing, marketing-minded “young prince of media.” Now the corporate vision seemed to be winning out. Where could Hall fit in?
During his stints in San Francisco, a succession of editors had tried to channel Hall’s energies in slightly more conventional directions. At Hotwired, editor Gary Wolf found that Justin was uninterested in simple editorial assignments. At Electric Minds, Rheingold, who’d say Justin was his “guru” (and that he was Justin’s), tried to get him to write a column. “I couldn’t discipline myself to write regularly, reliably, stuff for other people, because I was so immersed in the nonfiction-i-lating of my own life,” he says now. Hall got a steady stream of column invitations as main- stream editors started looking for material about the Web; each time it was the same routine. He’d write his first installment, on how and why to publish on the Internet. And that was that. “Because then, what was I gonna write next? ‘My mom hasn’t been calling me back’? Or, ‘ I met this girl I like’? That’s the stuff I was writing about on my website.”
For a time, Hall found a home at ZDTV, a cable channel dedicated to technology and the Internet. He’d do brief segments about Web publishing and cool sites. The people were smart, the pay was nice, and, unsurprisingly, the camera loved him. Alas, a national cable operation reached a different demographic from Justin’s Links. When the ZDTV management discovered that their young on-air talent had a website packed with sexual indiscretions, they asked him whether he would be willing to take down the “mature” parts of his site. But how could you crawl those thousands of pages and bowdlerize them? And even if you could, what would you have left when you were done? The sex and drugs, the nude pictures and the four-letter words, were the heart of links.net; stripping them out was unimaginable — like banning wine in France, or performing Wagner without tubas.
As Hall tells it, his departure from ZDTV was precipitated by an outraged letter from a puritanical viewer who’d stumbled on his site. (It read something like, “Don’t you know that this Justin Hall character is a homosexual freak pornographer who uses drugs and profanity?”) A former colleague recalls a different story involving a mishap during a live on-air demo: Hall accidentally clicked on the wrong window, “and his site came up with a picture of Justin in all his naked, dangly glory.” Hall remembers that incident happening to someone else at ZDTV who was browsing Justin’s Links after he’d already left the network. Whatever actually happened, Hall’s TV days were over.
Shortly after his graduation, Hall’s Macintosh laptop was stolen from him at gunpoint on the street in Oakland. When he replaced it with a new Windows PC, he became reimmersed in the world of videogames he’d inhabited before the Web. (Then, as now, more games were available for Windows than for Macintosh computers.) Hey, he thought, I don’t have to write exclusively about myself — I can become a gaming journalist! He found a gig with a gamers’ website and settled into the life of a twenty-something former Web celebrity.
In truth, Hall’s site did contain a vast amount of material that was in at best questionable taste. And he continued to add more. In 2002, in Japan, where he’d moved with a new sweetheart, he posted a page recording a medical incident of some sensitivity:
“You know how cats’ dicks swell up after sex?”
She shook her head and pursed her lips.
“When you hear caterwauling, the long slow painful meowling of some cats in the neighborhood during sex,
it’s because the male cat’s dick has swollen up something large so he can’t get out while the sperms are busy working. That’s pain for both of them I believe, so they yeowl.”
“So . . . “
“Maybe I have cat dick.”
Five closeup photos followed — a time-lapse sequence of an increasingly swollen foreskin that looked in need of medical attention. Such material provided confirmation for those who held the view that personal sites like Hall’s were simply narcissistic self-indulgences. And it was sometimes hard to argue with that view. Yet Hall never lacked for readers. When the Web first took off, Gary Wolf once wrote, “hordes of voyeurs discovered legions of exhibitionists.” However much Hall might have indulged himself, he always managed to interest others — whether they genuinely cared what was happening to him, or were just gawking at how far his next stunt might go.
In popular parlance, narcissism is simply a synonym for selfishness. Psychologists have a more detailed set of criteria that define narcissism as a specific personality disorder. Clinically, a narcissist is a person who is unable to relate to others as independent actors with legitimate needs; other people are simply props in some grand narrative of the self. There were times, particularly early on, when Justin Hall’s work seemed to fit that bill — when, for instance, he’d hook up with young women at Swarthmore, then post detailed pages about his dalliances, with little regard for his partners’ privacy. At one point someone wrote the question “What does everyone think of Justin?” on a women’ s-room wall in Swarthmore’s science library. Answers included: “Cult of personality.” “Megalomaniac.” “Entrepreneur.” “Weirdo.” “Needs attention because he wasn’t breastfed.”
You didn’t have to work hard to psychoanalyze Hall; he’d preempt you at every turn, talking about how “neither one of my parents was an enormously present force,” ruminating about how his father’s suicide influenced his storytelling mania, questioning his own motives. He was accustomed to charges of exhibitionism, and in his open, cheery way, he pondered them at length on his site. Over time, he grew more considerate about sucking other people into his vortex of publicity. In the end, if you were fair to Hall, it was hard to make the narcissism charge stick. He was always too permeable to the rest of the world, too willing to listen to anyone else’s story, too energetic about encouraging other people to tell their stories. His self-centeredness didn’t exclude others. And he always kept a sense of humor close: for a while in 1996 his home page led with the headline ONE DUDE’S EGO RUN AMOK.
Calling Hall a narcissist was understandable, though. For many observers, the label was just shorthand for the disorientation and discomfort they felt as they watched Hall dump an extraordinary volume of personal detail into global view. Hall’s actions said, I’m doing this because I can do it. They also said, Soon, everyone will be doing it. Surely that couldn’t be right! That wasn’t what all this technology was for. Most people don’t want to expose themselves so fully to the world. Hall was an exceptional case.
And of course he was. His mania for revelation was extreme. For one thing, he was testing the novel capabilities of the Web itself, like a driver gunning a new sports car. The medium was in its adolescence, and so was he, and there were so many possible identities to explore, so many experiments to perform, so much fun to be had, so many agonizing choices to be weighed over all-nighters and weed. All of which looked ridiculous to the adults on the Web scene, who were typically looking for “growth opportunities” and worrying about “business models.” In retrospect, though, it’s remarkable how much about the Web those adults got wrong, and how much Hall got right.
In June 1995 and again in 1996, Hall came to speak to a conference called New Directions for News, organized by the Newspaper Association of America and the Rand Corporation. Doug Block’s Home Page documentary captures a moment from one of these events. The few attendees — mostly serious-faced, gray-haired men in suits — scratch their chins and take notes impassively as Hall clicks links on a laptop at the podium, points at a projection screen behind him, and rattles through a tour of his website in machine-gun staccato: “Swarthmore. Hotwired. San Francisco. Jail. Cyborganic. Howard Rheingold. Web, music, spirit, dreams, painting, speaking. This right here is the most hit-resonating part of my page. This is the story of my relationship with this woman — it’s a mutha, it’s a doozy.”
Hair flying and eyes blazing, Hall must have come off like a dancing Martian. And his stunned listeners, in turn, were having their very own Mr. Jones moments: something was happening, and they sure didn’t know what it was.
Of course Hall posted the text of his talks at these events, on a page labeled “NewD irections” (he couldn’t resist turning a typo into a dumb dirty joke).
If everyone was to tell their stories on the web, we would have an endless human storybook, with alternating perspectives . . . when I meet big honchos, important people involved in the web, I ask them if they have a web page, and they point me to their magazine. I don’t really care about the magazine’s top five hotsites for the week, I want to know what that guy thinks is cool. How did he get to be on top? Who is there with him? Tell me about yourselves. Otherwise, I’m gonna get bored and look for someone who’s telling me something heartfelt, not something market driven.
Journalism, Hall declared, was going to change. “The need for staff and overhead” was dwindling. The “journalism of the future” was on its way: “Give someone a digital camera, a laptop, and a cellular phone, and you’ve got an on- the-spot multimedia storyteller from anywhere in the world.” Reporters would leave their jobs to go solo on the Web. Profits would come not from “mass market media” but from “millions of minuscule fees.” “The best content comes from people who love what they are doing,” Hall said.
At the time, most of this sounded impractical, insane. A decade later it would be the conventional wisdom of a whole movement of media insurgents.
@ @ @
It was always easy to see Justin Hall as a crazy kid and lovable eccentric, to enjoy his ramblings and ravings and then go on with one’s business. He practically begged not to be taken too seriously, what with his erratic costume changes, his rappy spontaneous style, and his sometimes gauzy techno-utopianism. As the mass media slowly cottoned to the Web and started looking for spokespeople, Hall was eminently bookable for TV sound bites, but his eccentricity also reassured observers that the Web would remain a fringe medium, too weird to matter much.
Yet everything about Justin Hall turns out to be more complex than it appears. Remember, for instance, his tactic of silently smiling at an audience before a talk? It turns out to have its own backstory. Hall says he got the idea from Osama bin Laden, of all people. He’d read an account of how the al-Qaeda leader would sometimes pause in silence for whole minutes when answering interviewers’ questions. “I thought, this is a really interesting technique to seize attention, and I began experimenting with it,” Hall says. “A whole group of people is assembled in a room to hear a talk or participate in a discussion. And you start off by having an unacknowledged moment of silence. People don’t know what to do. Sometimes people call out my name, like, have I had some kind of an episode?”
Hall’s high-wattage smile has always thrown people. Howard Rheingold says: “You can’t tell whether he’s kidding or he’s sincere. He’s actually mostly sincere. But that shit-eating grin on his face makes you think he’s putting you on.”
For years Hall played a bit of a fool’s role, playfully provoking people, smiling even as he pissed them off. He was the clown of the Web’s class of 1994, who, it often seemed, was never going to graduate. After his stint as a gaming correspondent, first in California and then in Japan, he enrolled at the USC film school’s Interactive Media Division. Almost immediately he found himself embroiled yet again in controversy. He started making short films and posting them on the Web — then discovered that this was against the school’s rules. USC claimed copyright over all the students’ work. And, oh, if you posted your film online, you couldn’t enter it to win a prize at Cannes. “I got into a long discussion with the head of the school,” he remembers. “I said, you know what? Ten of your students are going to get into Cannes in the next ten years. And that leaves ten thousand students who could be experimenting with the future, building a following, doing their thing.”
In January 2005, Hall still had his following, though it was much smaller than in his nineties heyday. So when he abruptly replaced his mountain of self-chronicling Web pages with a single tormented video — a cri de coeur unleavened by smiles or jokes — people noticed. The San Francisco Chronicle even put a story on its front page: TIME TO GET A LIFE — PIONEER BLOGGER JUSTIN HALL BOWS OUT AT 31. (Actually, Hall had just turned thirty that December.) But neither the Chronicle audience nor Hall’s own readers got a clear picture of why Hall was shutting down his venerable online confessional.
On January 7, late on a Friday evening, Hall posted notes on a first date under a header that read “wordless.” He marveled at the “immediate deep intimacy” he’d found with his new partner: “Something deep in me was being fed, and it made my hunger greater . . . . Much of the 20 hours was speechless staring at each other from two inches away giggling, laughing, smiling ’til our faces hurt.”
Underneath Hall’s ecstatic words, his readers began posting their comments:
ANYONE I KNOW??
. . . you? Speechless? ya right. :p
Lol J. -Justin got laid! That’s about it.
Late on Saturday night, an anonymous reader posting simply as “Q” wrote:
In the beginning I admired Justin, but recently have grown disillusioned with his perpetual adolescence. Every so often Justin is “In Love!!,” and it is always lighting speed and recklessly intimate. The first few posts with Jane and Amy sounded exactly the same . . . .
Intimacy isn’t when you have a deep conversation with a near-stranger or when you recklessly bare your soul on a first meeting. Intimacy is definitely not making bad porn with strangers in latex bodybags. These things are just games people play with trust, like those games in high school where you have to fall backwards and you have to trust someone to catch you and it feels somewhat exhilarating. While playing such games shows you the excitement and intensity that a feeling like “trust” can produce, and is a nice preview of it, it’s not the real thing. The real thing happens when there is a real reason to believe you can bare your soul to this person. For instance, that they’ve been there for 1000 days already. That they did the right thing when you bared one small detail, and then one medium-sized detail, and after a year, you *really* trust them with the big details. . . .
Justin has no respect for the boundaries in life that allow you to become very close with one person (or several), and comparatively less close with the rest, and thus create intimacy. . . . Justin throwing around intimacy shows that he doesn’t know what it’s worth.
On Sunday morning, Hall responded to Q:
You make stirring points. I can’t help but think I’ve been skimming the surface on intimacy some, as you intimate. But there is much unpublished. The broader narrative of search is clear; the motivations and affectations are incompletely stated. My relationships have a resonant depth for me. At times I feel something sorely lacking; don’t all humans have those moments? I have no long view of a single face, and perhaps I could know something more meaningful from more interpersonal patience. I’ve been looking for that partner; the lesson, seems to be . . . Sit still boy!
A day later, the whole decade-old apparatus of the links.net site — the vast cross-referenced tissue of links and photos and words splaying out the contents of Justin Hall’s brain on the Web like paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas — disappeared from view. First there was simply an empty search box. (Hall hadn’t actually deleted any of his pages; he’d just removed the home-page links that let you navigate to them. If you wanted to find your way in, all you had to do was enter keywords in the search box.) A few days later, the Dark Night video appeared above the box. A couple of weeks later, both were replaced by a little red heart plastered over with a swarm of question marks.
Hall’s date had been with a woman named Merci Victoria Grace Hammon. They’d met at USC. Hall told her he had a website. “Everyone has a website,” she recalls, “so I didn’t think too much of it.” But when she looked at the comments on his post about her date, she recoiled. “It was like Justin was maintaining a celebrity gossip blog about himself. Who needs that kind of cruelty in their lives?” She told him he couldn’t write about her on his website.
“She saw it and said, ‘This is ugly,’” Hall recalls. “‘I don’t want people auditing our love in public.’”
Over the years he’d learned to write more circumspectly about other people. The ascent of Google had made it possible for potential employers, current mates, or other interested parties to unearth all the stray comments he’d made about college classmates and partners in flings. And because links.net was an old and heavily linked-to site, Hall’s mentions often turned up at the very top of a Google vanity search. So he’d tried to narrow the circle of his posts — to reduce the potential for collateral damage. He’d determined to write only about his own feelings and views and use fewer real names of third parties.
But Hammon’s request represented a tougher choice. This relationship, Hall felt, was a big deal. Not writing about it would mean not writing about a central experience in his own life. “When I was nineteen, I’m like, I’m gonna write in real time for the rest of my life, chronicling my life, and I’ll be a new kind of writer. I would be living what I was writing. And what I discovered is, it’s very hard to maintain relationships and write in public. I decided in the end that I would rather have relationships.”
The anguish recorded in Dark Night shows Hall in the process of making that choice. The video was Hall’s goodbye-to-all-that note.
Hammon says she didn’t realize at the time that Hall was known for writing about his private life. “I just knew that I didn’t want to subject myself to that kind of public criticism.” She will sometimes meet longtime readers of Hall’s site and find that they think they know him better than she does, and “that it’s their duty (or joy) to warn me about him.” But she says she has not gone back and read any of the contents of Justin’s links.net site: “If Justin wants to share something about his past with me, then he will. Otherwise I don’t need to delve into his history. I love and accept him for who he is now.”
A month after that first-date post, Hall and Hammon moved in together. A year later, they started a game company together. In June 2008 they got married. The Internet was not invited.
@ @ @
Writers who tell stories about themselves, their families, and friends always walk a tightrope: you fall off one side if you stop telling the truth; you fall off the other if you hurt people you care about, or use them as fodder for your career. Dishonesty to the left, selfishness to the right. Over the past decade, confessional autobiography has become a popular literary trend, and as a result the bookstores are filled with examples of both kinds of failure. Instances of the balance and grace that success requires are comparatively rare. Until recently, however, the difficulty of this high-wire act was of concern only to literary critics and autobiographical monologuists. Most of us lacked the opportunity to share our intimate stories beyond the circle of our intimates themselves.
The Web changed all that. Today the hesitancy many older Web users felt about exposing personal details online has been replaced by the reckless abandon of young people weaned on MySpace and Facebook. This has left a lot of grownups shaking their heads in “kids these days” style. “Don’t they get it? Can’t they see how that topless spring-break photo is going to haunt them? Don’t they know those tales of bong-induced epiphanies won’t go over well with that hiring manager?”
It’s possible, of course, that future generations will simply give up on privacy — that the Web user of the future, surrounded by cell-phone snapshots and surveillance cameras, will assume that everything will turn up in the public record anyway. Perhaps everyone else will be equally tarnished by revelations of impropriety, which will evoke dwindling levels of outrage, and no one will worry about hiding anything.
But the story of Justin Hall, the Web’s original oversharing champion, suggests a different outcome to the transition we’re living through today. The struggle to draw a line between the self and the world isn’t some novelty imposed on us by technology; it’s part of human development — an effort we all face from the moment our infant selves begin to notice there’s a world out there, beyond our bodies. The Web has just made the process of drawing this line more nettlesome. In the end we’re each going to find the compromise between sharing and discretion that’s right for ourselves. If we’re lucky, it will take less than the decade it took Hall.
There is an “endearing habit” Justin Hall has, as Howard Rheingold describes it, of “shoving you aside, sitting down at your computer, and reconfiguring everything for your own good”: changing the settings of your Web browser or your word-processing program, arranging your desktop using helpful features you didn’t know about. “You can call this a lack of boundaries, and it is, but that’s such a value judgment,” Rheingold says. “You could also say, ‘Here’s a very open person. He’s not only open about himself, he’s open about you — he’s open about whoever he’s near!’ And he’ll sit down at your computer and change your defaults.”
In a sense, Hall changed the defaults of the Web itself. In its formative stages, he turned it into an arena for youthful self-exposure. He put on a defiantly outrageous show, attracted a following, and demonstrated how easy it was to do both. He took a medium that had been conceived as a repository for scholarship and scaled it down to personal size. Then he took his confessions and intimacies and blasted them out to the whole world.
The Web was what made all this possible, but Justin Hall made it the norm, the expected — the default. Then, years later, he discovered, as he put it in Dark Night, “I can’t seem to be an adult and feed the Web my intimacy and be with the people that I want to be with.”
As long as there is a Web, it will offer youthful seekers a seductively grand public stage for playing out their quests for connection and identity and meaning. But why would anyone think it could stop them from growing up?