Skip to main content
adhocracy

A prototype of Josh Harris's proposed next-generation social network. It would pull in video feeds from thousands of people in their homes as they go about their daily business, such as shaving.

About 18 months ago, Josh Harris began pitching his new business idea to the captains of Madison Avenue. "Half the time, they were polite," he says with a rueful chuckle. And the other half? "They kind of booted me out of the office."

It may be that they didn't quite understand the pitch, or that they thought it was so audacious it would never fly. Or, given Mr. Harris's history – which we'll get to in a moment – it could be that they simply decided he was cracked. After all, who could believe his suggestion that some day we'll all be competing to brush our teeth in front of Cindy Crawford?

Sorry: Now you're probably confused, which is not an unusual response when people enter the orbit of Josh Harris. It was much the same thing last week, when he left his base in New York to come to Toronto and address about 100 people at the Emerging Technology & Advertising conference mounted by FITC Events. As he spoke, some tweeted "Josh Harris is blowing my mind right now" while others sputtered in disbelief.

For the message he delivered was a vision of the future that even he admits is depressing. But boy, could it sell a lot of toothpaste.

The project he envisions, Net Band Command (aka the Wired City), is a next-generation social network that would pull in video feeds from thousands of people in their homes as they go about their daily business. Many of us already have camera phones in our pockets, and webcams on our computers; he believes it's a short hop from there to installing a camera in your shaving mirror and a dozen other places around the house.

Spurred by a series of competitions – say, who is the most skillful and consistent tooth-brusher? who can make the tastiest brownies? who gets stains out of their children's clothes the best? – or simply a desire to share the minutiae of their days, people would plug themselves into their friends' lives through the network. The streams of these "micro day-parts" – to use the TV parlance – would be monitored by someone in a studio stuffed with monitors. At some point, someone else might pop into a participant's stream – say, a supermodel with great teeth – to lead a brief personal lesson on oral hygiene.

"What we're really talking about is Crest taking a formerly mundane moment that happens, hopefully three times a day, and elevating it into an engaging, entertaining experience," Mr. Harris said.

Think of it as a kind of souped-up Facebook that soup makers might love to use as an interactive marketing channel.

Okay, you're skeptical: You wonder what kind of person would want to share everything about their lives. For that matter, you ask, who'd want to watch it? But both phenomena are already widespread; Mr. Harris has simply built a proposed business model around it.

"If the [wired]toothbrush senses there's a problem with your brushing, we'd bring in a Level 3 flossing expert," he continued. "Or if you've got children and one of them misses a brushing session, the equivalent of Crest Social Services will come in to tell you you're a bad parent. And I assure you, it will matter to you – you'll be a bad parent."

He envisions dozens of marketers getting in on the action. "You can see it's possible to make these formerly mundane moments engaging and entertaining. Now, because we're doing it for toothpaste, you can bet that Head & Shoulders and the people selling food [will jump on board]"

What will it take to make his vision a reality? He figures one million bucks will pay for a pilot project; $5-million will build a TV studio to prove the concept; $100-million, he says, will make it happen for real. Since no major marketer has yet stepped forward – "They're not very aggressive," he shrugged – he said in an interview this week that a company like Rogers Cable, which already offers a security service that monitors the perimeter of a residence, might convince people to extend their surveillance activities to inside the home.

Way before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that privacy had become outdated, Mr. Harris was the tarnished patron saint of oversharing. After founding the Internet research firm Jupiter Communications, in the late 1990s he created pseudo.com, a collection of public access-style Web channels that offered simultaneous video and chat. (Nowadays texting or tweeting or posting on Facebook while watching TV is commonplace.) He left that in 1999 to create Quiet, a social experiment and art project installed in a squat SoHo building that saw 100 volunteers living communally while having their every actions – from sleeping to eating to showering to sex – monitored and recorded 24 hours a day. He fed and housed the participants. But there was a creepy, manipulative aspect to the venture: We Live in Public, a documentary about Mr. Harris that won a prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, suggests he also subjected them to horrific psychological battery.

The experiment lasted less than a month before New York City authorities, acting on rumours of a Doomsday cult, evicted everyone before dawn on Jan. 1, 2000.

Mr. Harris is probably best known for the oversharing bonanza he undertook after that, putting himself and his girlfriend Tanya Corrin square in the public's glare. He wired his downtown loft with dozens of cameras – in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the bathroom – to capture and broadcast their every move in real-time over the Internet. Very quickly, Mr. Harris and Ms. Corrin became performing monkeys, responding to the online chatting and goading of viewers from around the globe. (Frequently, the fans merely wanted the couple to have sex, or at least for Ms. Corrin to remove her clothes.) The pressure of that existence broke up the couple and led to Mr. Harris suffering what he calls "a psychic fracture." He sold the loft and bought an apple farm in upstate New York, where he spent four years recuperating – "to get my cookies back."

But don't worry, he said: Sure, it was hard for him, but our species is evolving to the point that we'll adapt to the pressures of living in public. There will be benefits, he says, for both people and businesses: Think of how good it will be, he says, for insurance companies to be able to monitor our lives and charge us a premium based on our actual behaviour rather than mere "risk factors" of the demographic we're in. What's in it for us, you ask? Well, we presumably will get more accurate insurance rates.

As Mr. Harris wound up his presentation at ETA, participants peppered him with questions. Is this really a good thing? they asked. He shot back: "Is television good? It's neither good nor bad, it just is."

"It's an endless discussion," he continued, "so let me ask you a question: Is it gonna' happen, or is it not gonna' happen?"

Yes, replied the ad folk in the audience: It's going to happen.

"Then don't worry about it," he said. "It's gonna' be awesome!"