Last week, National Geographic debuted a three-part documentary special called The ’90s: The Last Great Decade? Although it didn’t spend a lot of time on the rise of the web, the history of that period obviously noted some of the more significant moments in the early days of the Internet’s widespread popularity. There was the dot-com bubble, the breaking of the Clinton/Lewinski scandal on the Drudge Report, the first browser war, the screech of dialup and the reason Apple started naming products starting with a lower-case i. It was a great piece of nostalgia, reminding me that this month marks my own 20th anniversary of using the Internet — an occasion I know of because it coincided with a pre-college program I attended in the summer of 1994.
Also last week, the New York Times posted a new Op-Doc by Brian Knappenberger called A Threat to Internet Freedom. The short film tackles the net neutrality issue in a brief yet concise five minutes, and there’s not a better director out there for this particular topic. Knappenberger continues to be the best documentary filmmaker when it comes to presenting histories, biographies and current events and debates of and related to the Internet. In fact, his two most recent features are both among the top 10 documentaries about the Internet. Those and the eight others are all from the past 13 years, none of them produced in the ’90s, and few of them even focus on subject matter pertaining to the net during the 20th century.
The further we get from the dawn of the web, the more complex it gets and the more issues arise. Meanwhile, documentaries keep getting better, as a whole. So, it’s safe to say that we’ll be seeing other films deserving to be on this list in the future.
First, though, watch Knappenberger’s new Op-Doc:
MTV’s spin-off series has either lessened or increased the significance of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Sundance stunner. Or maybe it’s done both. Even if any of it was staged, this film about one guy’s journey to find out his online crush isn’t who she seems is a revealing exploration of online identity and romance. And it’s plenty funny, suspenseful and disturbing. When it came out (the same year as The Social Network), we all kept calling it the other Facebook movie, but in retrospect it’s unfair to peg it to the one site. Surely there was Catfishing going on back in the days of AOL and Prodigy and all those other early online services. It’s crazy it that it took almost 20 years to open up this can of worms and see it as an apparently regular phenomenon.
Frontline: “Growing Up Online” (2008)
An episode of the PBS series Frontline has looked into topics concerning youth and the Internet better than any feature documentary. One segment deals with online identity and minor celebrity, another segment is about teen safety online, whether that involves threats from sexual predators or influence from unhealthy forums, and the last focuses on cyberbullying, in a way that’s far more affecting than the little paid to the issue in the popular documentary Bully. Also recommended is Frontline’s 2010 follow-up to this episode, “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier.”
High Tech, Low Life (2012)
The Internet has been a substantial part of political dissent in the world, from allowing footage and information to escape from censoring nations quicker and easier than ever before to the way social media has helped rally protestors to the point of revolution. This has definitely been true for Chinese activists and journalists, including the artist Ai Weiwei, who has been the subject of a couple docs, and the two protagonists of Stephen Maing’s feature on bloggers going against government censorship to report on news around the PRC that the national media won’t or can’t touch. “Zola” and “Tiger Temple” aren’t as entertaining as Ai Weiwei, but without his fame they offer a more common and relatable struggle for not just Chinese citizen journalists but similar heroes around the globe. It’s also a great-looking doc, and it has the extra net relevance by having raised its post-production costs by crowdfunding on Kickstarter.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)
Knappenberger’s latest feature is a biographical portrait of Internet prodigy Aaron Swartz, who took his own life last year as he was facing prison time for downloading (a lot of) academic articles. But through that highly emotional and specific life story, this is also a movie that is so much about the world today and the pros and cons of the net in and for all our lives. Swartz’s legacy as a pioneer and activist and ultimately a kind of martyr is incredibly inspiring for us right now, particularly for the net neutrality issue. Regardless of that importance aspect, the documentary is also deeply insightful on the past, present and future of the net.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)
This hugely successful pop music film about one of the most hugely successful pop artists of our time is only slightly about the kid from Canada with an iconic haircut and a voice beloved by millions of girls around the world. Justin Bieber is a star because of the Internet, and while the doc’s main aim is to present an entertaining profile on him and is music to his fans, it also manages to work on a higher level as a story of YouTube celebrity brought to the extreme. Also recommended for related stories are Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey and Me @ the Zoo.
Life in a Day (2011)
It’s not the first crowd-sourced documentary of its kind, but it’s the most notable and the best. Producer Ridley Scott and director Kevin Macdonald reached out to the world via YouTube for footage shot on a particular day in 2010 (July 24, which can also be written as 24/7) and then compiled it into a hypnotic portrait of Earth. Right, it’s a documentary about Earth, and I’ve even included it on a list labeling it as such. But I’m totally in agreement with Macdonald, who called it “a metaphor of the experience of being on the Internet” in an interview for the Wall Street Journal. “We all experience the world through the Internet,” he continued, “clicking from one place to another, in this almost random way … following our own thoughts, following narrative and thematic paths.” And as he notes in the same interview, there’s no way a film like this could exist without the net, so when we look at Life in a Day outside of the box of just its content, its existence is very much about the web, online video hosting, how the Internet brings the world closer and smaller and many other relevant ideas.
The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin (2014)
Most documentarians would love to be on top of a story as early as director Nicholas Mross was for the start of Bitcoin. Fortunately, he was kinda just making a film about his brother, who got in on the craze early as a “miner.” The filmmaker wound up exploring the digital currency deeper over the course of its first big year, coming across other substantial characters and narratives that can properly go down in history thanks to this doc. I’ve compared it to the idea of having a film chronicling, first-hand, Tim Berners-Lee at the start of the World Wide Web or Mark Zuckerberg during the beginning of Facebook. It’s a necessary and comprehensive introduction.
Similar to what Mross was able to do for Bitcoin, Jehane Noujaim was able to do for one really great example of the dot-com bubble and burst narrative. The director, best known now as a recent Oscar nominee for The Square, started documenting her former classmate/roommate as he co-founded the site govWorks. So she got to be there through its rise and fall. Noujaim also got some substantial help for this, her first film, from none other than D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, the latter coming in as a co-director. Some docs are just made at a time and can easily fall away forgotten. Startup.com is one of the most representational films of the late ’90s and the initial e-commerce craze that took the world by storm and left her shipwrecked.
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists (2012)
The other film by Knappenberger on this list is an immensely engaging and digestible history of the Internet, for the most part, through the first decade of the 21st century. The focus is on the hacker and activist (or hacktivist) group Anonymous and their most noteworthy attacks and pranks, but in a way being about Anonymous means being about the whole net. This is a doc that can pretty much trace serious movements like Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street back to goofy stuff like LOLcats and “Chocolate Rain.” Everything is connected online, and this film illustrates that perfectly.
We Live in Public (2009)
Ondi Timoner won her second Sundance Grand Jury Prize for this doc about Josh Harris, one of the most ahead-of-his-time Internet pioneers there was. He’s like the little-known link between the dot-com bubble and the second wave with its rise in social media and dwindling privacy — both desired and undesired. Timoner filmed Harris for years and years, and her footage is supplemented by self-documentation via Harris’s many experiments and enterprises involving people putting their life completely out for public view over the web. It’s another time capsule, but it’s one that could be opened immediately and seem so strange. Even those of us who lived through the period on record are amazed by the things Harris was doing.