NEW YORK CITY — In November 1998, Josh Harris, founder of the now-defunct and bankrupt but then merely struggling Pseudo.com, flipped a proverbial switch, and whammo
NEW YORK CITY — In November 1998, Josh Harris, founder of the now-defunct and bankrupt but then merely struggling Pseudo.com, flipped a proverbial switch, and whammo, his life (and the life of his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin) were broadcast to the world. Flush with the increasingly dwindling millions he paid himself through his site, Harris had rigged up his gorgeous SoHo loft with 32 cameras and microphones and proclaimed it open to the world. For 100 days, Harris and Corrin were not to have a single private moment. These 100 days in virtual nirvana would be spent hand-in-hand with whomever visited www.weliveinpublic.com. You could hop in the chat room with Harris and Corrin and be privvy to every exchange. For 100 days.
It is now Day 93. The only person in the loft ... me.
The story of how I ended up here — I have yet to ever meet either Harris or Corrin — is a complicated one, and the complete story involves more narrative than I particularly care to provide.
So I'll make it quick. From what I understand, Harris continued to hemmorage money, became withdrawn and moody, had very few private moments with Corrin and ultimately sputtered out a desperate proposal to her while she was moving out. (She said no.) Right after she left him, Harris went on a week's vacation to Los Angeles to visit his mother. That brings us to now, Day 93. He is expected to sell the loft, almost all he has left, when he returns. (Brokers have been showing the place all week.)
Meanwhile, meet Will Leitch. I'm a broke, unemployed, and currently homeless dot-com casuality. I've been drifting around New York for a couple of months now, trying to find work, which will lead to an apartment, which will lead to women, which will lead to success, which will lead to fame, money, and the decadence of literary stardom. A friend of mine, who has written stories about Harris for Inside.com, informed me that Harris had asked him to house-sit his loft for a week, and if I wanted, I could crash there. I would like to say that the prospect of living in a ludicrously elaborate Web cam house inspired the artist within, spurring me to new creative heights, but after hopping from one Manhattan couch to another for two months, I was mainly excited that the loft had its own washing machine. And if he happened to have some beer in the fridge, that would just be gravy.
To be honest, I hadn't given much thought to what living in a Web cam house of this scope would entail. It was just a lark, and it was just a place to stay. I had no idea what I was in for.
I meet my friend at the loft around noon, he hands me the keys and he takes off. Enormous Hefty bag of laundry hoisted on my weary shoulder, I hop in the elevator that brings me straight into the loft. As I'd already been informed, Black Entertainment Television was filming a pilot there that day — I learn quickly that the loft has more visitors than Pseudo ever did; people are constantly popping in and out, unannounced — so I shuffle to the back room, careful to avoid disturbing the filming by tripping over a light stand or sneezing in the middle of a key shot. (I fail; a clumsy attempt to pet a cat results in the unplugging of a sound board. I sheepishly crawl away.)
The loft is beautiful. Assuming I do in fact get a job someday, I will never make enough money to live in its smallest closet. I don't want to overestimate this, but it spans at least 12 square miles. The floor is shimmering wood, the television is projected 20 feet high across the side wall, the inside is covered with undoubtedly expensive pop art. (Warholian portraits of Bob Denver are everywhere; I have a queasy feeling they each cost more than my parents' mortgage.) The furniture is just postmodern and artsy enough to be unbearably uncomfortable. In the back is a gigantic shower room, with steam vents under every corner. I will later understand that these are used to fog up the camera that is pointed directly at my uncovered unmentionables.
And then, the piece de resistance ... the control room. Desperate for a Web connection, this is my immediate destination. It's what I always imagined that pod Darth Vader slept in was like on the inside. There are wires and cables everywhere, snaking in every direction, going nowhere but sustaining everything. A sound system the size of two Shawn Kemps sits angrily to the side, with little beeping lights and infinite streams of binary code — I think it's binary code; it is so confusing, it might as well be hieroglyphics — streaming restlessly up and down its panels. I have a feeling if I were to trip over a cord in here, the loft would implode. This is the main tech center. All flows through here. It is dark, quiet and overpowering.
On the main switchboard are four monitors. Two are attached to computers — which computer I am not certain; there are about 20 in here — but it is the other two that catch my eye. Each contains 16 little pixelated video screens. These are the 32 feeds each camera is receiving. There's the shower cam, the toilet cam, the bed cam, the refrigerator cam, the cat litter cam. I see myself, on camera 10. It is situated right above the main computer monitor, and it is focused on the top of my head.
"Have you been to the site yet?" The producer of the BET pilot, who has been here in the control room all morning, notices my dumbstruck look. I hadn't been to the site yet; not only did I not have a computer fast enough to run RealPlayer, I also wanted to check it out for the first time while I was living there. He loads up the site. A small RealPlayer pops up on the left, and after the perpetually infuriating wait for Java to load, a little chat window appears.
Welcome to fullmix, Leitch!
I stare into the computer. People are chatting about nothing in particular, calling each other names, complaining about boredom, typical chat room pap. Then another message appears.
don't just sit there. DO something!
"He's talking to you." The BET producer is thoroughly enjoying this. He's right. That dude's talking to me. ... and ... I'm not doing anything. I'm paralyzed. The computer is talking to me. I respond.
I wave frantically, like a total boob. No one responds. They go about chatting. I sit down at the computer and watch them. The RealPlayer appears to be just background music to them. Occasionally something moderately interesting will happen in the loft — people are particularly attracted to one of the models in the pilot — and a couple people will type something, then they'll go back to their conversations. It is busy now, but it won't be later. Later it will be just me. I recognize this as a perfect time to absorb all this, so I will be ready when I'm alone, the exclusive entertainment, the soup of the day.
After leaving for a while to visit another unemployed, depressed friend, I return to the loft that evening. The BET crew has left. I sit down and decide to enter the chat. I'm insulted almost immediately.
now isn't this more interesting then some dick
playing on his computer
I'm assuming he's being sarcastic. I decide to chime in.
I'm Will Leitch, the guy tapping into the computer on camera 10. It's insane here, I think.
As would be expected after almost 90 days, there aren't many people in the chat room on a Saturday night that aren't regulars. It's immediately clear who the ringleader is. He goes by the name , and he starts asking me a bunch of questions. Apparently, Harris doesn't chat much anymore, and people are eager for the promised interactive experience to take hold. I explain who I am, why I'm here, apologize for the lack of activity — I am waiting for my friend Jessica to come by before we visit another depressed comrade — and notice a link in the bottom right-hand corner of the page.
Visit two of our most popular fansites:
www.ourdna.org - www.weliveinthefridge.com
The fridge site, boasting the more compelling name, earns my mouse first, but it's mainly just a compilation of screen shots of people in the shower. I check out the other one.
A confession: I don't watch the show Survivor. Too busy being unemployed. But to keep up appearances at social gatherings, I make sure to know what's happening on the show by checking out episode synopses on the CBS site and on Salon. They're just little rundowns of exactly what happens; watching the show is unnecessary. That's what ourdna.org is. runs it, explaining his inquisitive nature. With jaw dropped, I read the latest update.
Re: Day 88 (Saturday 02/17/01) "Will Leitch moves in"
One of the loft guests in chat:
"I'm Will Leitch, the guy tapping into the computer on camera 10. It's insane here, I think. This is my first day here. Working on a story. Staying with XXXX XXXXX from Inside.com. These BET people are really nice, though most of us are leaving to use the restroom."
And, instantly, I'm in the game. People suddenly become quite curious about what I'm doing. I'm playing Radiohead's Kid A on the stereo, and everyone is debating me whether or not it sucks. (They end up just deciding to make fun of my singing). They want to know if my friend Jessica is hot. They keep accusing me of picking my nose.
I get up to use the restroom. I rush to return. A message is waiting.
you should wash your hands
Later I am chastised for having the music too loud, falling asleep on the couch, stealing rum from the liquor cabinet, and wearing an ugly sweater. It's like having my mom around, all the time. Until Jessica arrives ...
is he going to fuck her
Mom never said that, I think. I will spend most of the next day trying to convince them Jessica did not sleep over, that we did not have sex, that she was not blowing me below the console.
I have a drunken evening out with friends and stumble back to the loft, where I sleep, uneasily, aware of every snore or cough or moan. I find myself keeping my hands above the covers, to make sure nobody thinks I'm masturbating, lest it show up on the fan site. The next day, I check the site archives and realize I slept for a total of 88 minutes.
I am doing laundry all the next day, sitting alone, and I learn how to take advantage of the chatters. After all, I am a visitor in the house of a man I do not know. But they, they've lived here for a while.
I ask them if Harris allows people to smoke in the loft. I ask if they know where an iron is. In one particularly surreal moment, I realize I have lost my keys. I enter the chat room and ask if anybody happens to see where I might have left them. One guy tells me to check my pockets. And there they were.
I am becoming far more comfortable here. The enormous television screen is perfect to watch my beloved Illinois basketball team, I've mastered the steaming-the-shower technique and, in a most unexpected touch, I'm finding myself vaguely turned on by the experience. Occasionally, I'll walk around in just my boxer shorts, imagining some hot model randomly tuning in and sending me fevered private messages about what she would do were she there.
My friend, who moved in the next day, and I decide to host a small party. Because Harris was kind of a hip artsy icon here for a short time, word spreads and more people than we were expecting show. There's a moderately deranged woman who keeps flashing her breasts into the camera. An unsuspecting friend of mine forgets about the toilet cam and, since there's a screen in the front room broadcasting the live feed, the entire party gets a good laugh at her expense. One couple finds one of the few blind spots in the loft — aided by a strategically placed towel — and is not heard from for several hours.
I feel like the swinging host, the virtual Hugh Hefner, welcoming all these partiers into this most unnatural environment. And for a moment, I understand the hubris that brought Harris the intoxication of wealth and fame and success to the humiliation of bankruptcy and solitude. I am enormous here, the life of the party, the guy who knows all the hidden passageways and sees all the cameras, knows all the demons. I am flush with power. It is I who knows where the bodies are buried! There are many people at this party, but I who am known. I am the one the chatters know. I am the one whom they will want to talk to at the end of the night. They are all watching me!
The party winds down, and people filter out. Then there is a buzz at the front door. Like most intercom systems in New York City apartments, I can't understand a damn word the guy outside is saying, so I just buzz him up. A man of indistinct European origin walks in, and up to me. "Are you Will?" I am, I say. "I am testpod. I saw you were having a party, so I came by. I am going to go use the computer now. You are a nice person." A real chatter, right there in the flesh. A shiver engulfs me. I didn't think I'd actually meet one. They were supposed to be anonymous. They're not real, are they? I feel queasy again.
A couple of nights later, someone very close to me calls me at the loft. She has had a horrible day. Like the rest of us in the wake of the dot-com crash, she's flailing, drifting, falling apart. She is crying. She needs my support. I am there for her. She weeps and vents and wonders aloud if any of us will ever pull ourselves out of this. She then stops, midsentence.
"Will, is this all being recorded?" It is. The phones are tapped and played live for the eager audience of strangers. She composes herself, coughs and says she has to go, she'll talk to me tomorrow. I head to the control room and load up www.weliveinpublic.com. The chatters are out in force.
that woman was so fucking shrill. i thought she'd never shut
up. she needs a good fuck
Suddenly, I wonder if Tanya Corrin made it out in time.
And then it is time to go. Harris is returning from Los Angeles, and I must head out into the snowy New York night, trying to find somewhere else to peddle my wares. It is, after all, his house, even if just for a few more days. And I want to get out before he notices I drank all his booze.
I have not met Josh Harris, and I suspect I never will. In the end, after all the bluster, the grand experiment whimpered out with the ultimate interactive experience: A stranger, living in his home, living his life. Like him, I was tempted, entranced, excited.And like him, I'm now back out on the street, finding it far more difficult to find people who give a damn outside the chat room.