Seeking Connection, 20 Years Later

Doug Block's classic 1999 documentary 'Home Page,' which profiles early "cyber stars" including Justin Hall, will be re-released this month.

Passion River Films

Many of us have feared the power of the internet since the birth of our so coveted World Wide Web. What could it do? What could we do with it? Blogging pioneer and early “cyber star” Justin Hall, the main figure in Doug Block‘s 1999 documentary Home Page, saw an opportunity and seized it.

The film, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a special rerelease, started out as a video diary of Block trying to connect to people via their web pages, as a query into the virtual world on an individual, personal relationship basis. But it evolved to closely follow Hall, as he was the poster child for web presence at the time. Notoriously, Hall, whom the New York Times Magazine would later refer to as “the founding father of personal blogging,” managed his site diligently and shared his most intimate and personal goings-on.

Much like the one in this mildly NSFW clip from the film, which I think characterizes him perfectly:

Hall is a complex documentary subject dealing with the dichotomy of living a willingly public life versus a reluctantly private one and following his desire for interrelatedness. His eccentric blog of thoughts, opinions, links, and even nude photos caught the eyes of the public in the 1990s. If you really wanted to know the real Justin Hall, you could. He let you. He mentions in the film that he had been accused of exhibitionism, but he sees it as more innocent than that. He’s just seeking connection to the real world by way of the online world.

Home Page is a very fun watch if you want to get nostalgic. These days, the internet has become like our fifth appendage. The 20-year-old film, which began capturing this world as far back as 1996, takes a scrupulous look at the array of optimistic thinking during the web’s early years. Besides Hall, there are many other characters in the documentary with bright and shining ideas of what the web would be and what it was at the time. These people saw revolution in the eyes of the web.

The film’s rerelease comes at a time for our society when — many would argue — the internet has become exactly what we feared. It’s a bottomless abyss of everything all in one place, and we have grown an almost sci-fi-level dependence on the affirmation of others. Home Page poses a question wise beyond its years: at what point is it too much? Have we hit that mark? Did Hall hit that mark the second he made his privacy public? Maybe, but that is for the audience to decide.

As I curiously researched Hall further, I ended up down a rabbit hole. I found his blog, and it is still active as of February 2019. I recommend you take some time to click around the site, as there is a link to additional thoughts with just about every third word of the text. It’s like he’s begging his audience to become voyeurs.

As he puts it in a post from a few months ago:

“As it is I have online sharing PTSD. Each thing I write online, I question who am I serving? Am I violating someone else’s privacy? Am I punching up or down? Am I going to be harassed by people with too much time feeding on my personal details? Would I rather be spending time with my kid or pleasuring myself elsewhere?”

In addition to the film celebrating its 20th anniversary, so is The D-Word, a worldwide community of documentarians that began as an online journal by Block during the making of Home Page. He was chronicling the trials and tribulations of bringing the doc to fruition, yet it grew into a haven for filmmakers experiencing the same struggles and frustrations of the grueling process of getting a doc made. The D-Word is viewed within the industry as an essential online network for emerging and existing voices, and that gives this film’s legacy an added significance.

Home Page will finally be available on DVD courtesy of Passion River Films — with a new nine-minute featurette revisiting Justin Hall 20 years later — as well as to rent or buy on all major digital outlets on April 16th.