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Unraveling the web's story

An Hour About…

It’s good to be back! While I was away getting a few things sorted and organized, we went and published Chapter 9 of my ongoing series on web history at CSS Tricks. It starts with Geocities. It ends with social media. And there is a lot in between.

I wanted to try something new, inspired a bit by a guest post I recently wrote for Ernie Smith’s newsletter MidRange. Each post to that newsletter is bounded by a time limit, usually around thirty minutes. Thirty minutes is a little tight for the kind of research I’m doing, but I loved the format. So let’s call it an hour. For this post, I took an hour to write something a bit looser than what I usually write; to teach you something about web history you hopefully don’t already know.

This month, I have an hour to teach you about

It’s not possible to understand without first understanding its distinctive creator Josh Harris. And it’s not possible to understand Josh Harris without some context about the tech scene in New York that made him famous, Silicon Alley.

The name, Silicon Alley, was a riff on the west coast’s Silicon Valley, the latter of which had been far quicker to move into the technology sector. And while the valley was centered on techno-utopianism and advancing tech-based paradigms, the alley was far more interested in creative expression and the tactics of business.

The New York tech scene was flooded with twenty-somethings fresh out of college, with a countercultural independent streak spurned by the mainstream media industry. They created offbeat webzines and mainstream media alternatives. But Silicon Alley also gave way to corporate backed web portals and large advertising networks (i.e. DoubleClick) boosted by the investment of a growing interest from Wall Street. Money poured into the dot-coms, run by recent college graduates.

Josh Harris was a bit different than the rest of the Silicon Alley upstarts. For one, he was a bit older, already in his 30’s, a bit savvier and experienced. In the years before the web, he ran an interactive agency known as Jupiter Communications and minted a small personal fortune running adult chat rooms for Prodigy. He was sometimes referred to as a genius, the “Warhol of the Web.” Other times, he was labeled brash and dishonest. He leveraged his early computing success into his first web-powered venture,

Psuedo was a web-based entertainment network. Harris and his team produced amateur content, both scripted and unscripted, in their offices and streamed the programs over the web. Pseudo ran like a cable network, live-streaming content throughout the day on different channels, rather than making individual content available on demand. It was a somewhat premature experiment in the days of slow Internet connections.

Pseudo had plenty of fans and amassed a loyal audience, but critics were quick to point out that its low-fi content felt like a public access channel, only pixelated and blurry. And yet, the Pseudo website was only a small part of what made the company intriguing. Harris created a culture of relaxed accountability and individual autonomy. Employees, mostly made up of friends or friends of friends, came when they wanted, left when they wanted and spent their time dreaming up cool shit for the web. The content that streamed on Pseudo was unconventional and strange, and nothing at all like what you might see in the mainstream media.

On top of that, Harris became known for his parties. He would throw lavish affairs with throngs of people deeply embedded in the New York tech and art scene, mixed in with potential investors from Wall Street. Nothing was off limits for the amidst the illicit chaos, in parties that ran for days at a time. In the lead up to the new millennium at the end of 1999, Harris ran a month-long party where he live-streamed all of his guests: when they partied, when they slept, when they went to the bathroom, and when they had sex. This would eventually become an inspiration for a a later documentary, We Live in Public, and several subsequent projects. When he opened an invitation to anybody in the public, the party got so large that the NYPD stormed his house and cleared it out just as the New Year came in.

All the while, Harris created a cult of personality. Some employees were fiercely loyal, others complained that he was quick to fly ff the handle or played things too fast and loose, committed too much to parties and night life. It was Harris’ notoriety, and not necessarily the strength of the website, that drew the attention of Wall Street. Pseudo was backed by what seemed like endless rounds of investment, despite the fact it made almost nothing. Every time they were on the edge of failure, another investor swooped into save them.

Until they didn’t.

The site shut down in 2000, unable to keep the lights on. Many of the employees who had signed on for stock options and attractive severance packages got nothing. Harris went on to create the aforementioned art projects, and has more recently gone on record in his belief that the FBI is tracking him for his involvement in a pre-9/11 performance art stunt at the World Trade Center.

In 2008, Harris sent an open letter to Boing Boing claiming that Pseudo was never a real company, that it was all an elaborate bit of performance art meant to highlight the absurdity of the tech scene and the swell of investment. He has not spoken about the site since. But that’s hard to believe, given what others that worked there have said.

So Pseudo is an enigmatic website for a number of reasons. Was it real or was it fake? How much was it there to simply facilitate good times and good parties? How much was its creator conscious of what he was doing?

More interesting is how logical and captivating Psuedo felt at the time. Its a perfect capsule of what many predicted the web would become. Basically, an extension of our televisions. Curated channels of content. A connected network still dominated by the same old modes of broadcast media.

For all its 21st century ambition and grandiose scale, Pseudo was a decidedly 20th century relic. What the web became was far messier. The web splintered into community sites, and content sites, and commerce. It fractured and created industries that didn’t even exist before. Pseudo didn’t make sense in the mid to late 90’s, but it hardly makes sense now, even when the quality of Internet connections has increased. Because the web isn’t just about content or channels. It’s about a million little things.