Josh Harris lived through a version of the future—a future where TV is replaced by constant, live video chat/surveillance over the Internet—and it almost made him go insane. His experiments from a decade ago with filming people day and night in a New York City bunker, and then himself and his girlfriend in his own wired loft, were documented in the movie We Live In Public. Now, after many fits and starts, he wants to take another stab at making that future a reality through a new Internet TV project he is pitching called Wired City, which he explains to me in the video interview above. You can also go through the exclusive pitch documents which I’ve embedded at the bottom of this post.
Harris made his first millions by founding market research firm Jupiter Communications. He then ventured into Internet TV way before broadband with Psuedo, one of of the more spectacular flameouts of the 1990s dotcom era. At one point, Harris had a net worth of $80 million. That all disappeared, much of it during the time he was broadcasting his life 24 hours a day over the Web in 2001. He later created a live video chat community called operator11, which also quickly went out of business. Harris decided to unplug and went to to live in Ethiopia for a few years. But now he’s back, pitching his new project which is a continuation of his decade-long quest to turn reality into TV. He says he only needs $50 million to do it right this time. With everything from Chatroulette to the iPhone’s new video-chat FaceTime feature, the time seems ripe for video chat TV to finally find its audience.
When I first met Harris, I asked him what he thought of Chatroulette, the random live video chat service started by Russian teenager Andrey Ternovskiy. He shrugged and said, “It is child’s play.” And Facebook, to him, is nothing more than “an advanced message board.”
Wired City is Chatroulette on steroids. It starts with video chat rooms where the audience comes and watches each other. Since anyone can set up a home studio with a webcam, anyon can become a “ChatStar.” These chat rooms are organized in what Harris calls “Net bandstands,” which are divided into different categories such as music, gaming, fashion, news, lifestyle. The Chat rooms are organized in a hierarchy and linked together. A video DJ or director controls what is seen in each chat room, and when something interesting is happening in his chat room, he can signal up the chain to get his live video into more popular chat rooms. Some combination of eyeballs and money will determine which videos get promoted.
At the very top of the stack is a Hollywood production studio filled with the most popular ChatStars. Harris proposes to “build a sound stage and the sound stage is cast from people at home.” If you do something special that attracts a lot of attention or advertising or both, your live video gets promoted in realtime up the stack, and as you gain points you get a chance to go to the big stage which is promoted on the homepage.
“As you go up higher in the stages, just like in a massive multiplayer online game, you get more powers,” says Harris. “Or to put it more industrially, you get better administrative controls.”
In this way, thinks he can create a mass audience attractive to advertisers. Everything on that set can be sponsored, from Gillette shaving mirrors to the Swanson’s Hungry Man dining table. He wants to sell micro-day parts of people’s lives, and over the long term he thinks that these mundane videos will have value to people who want to go back and reconstruct parts of their lives.
Harris believes that everything he has done so far is leading up to Wired City. The technology behind it is an advanced version of Operator11, combined with creating their own home studios like he did with his loft. It is a real-life massive multiplayer game where the goal is to get onto the physical set and become Internet famous. What happens on the physical Hollywood set is “scarce and a highly coveted place to see and be seen,” says Harris, “sort of like the bunker in We Live in Public.
Rather than approach VCs, Harris is trying to go straight to ad agencies this time, and maybe start with one sponsored ‘Net bandstand” to prove out his concept. He is also talking to reality TV studios in Hollywood. But his past and his history of startups that run through cash isn’t making it easy. He knows what he is up against: “The tech guys don’t seem to appreciate the Hollywood style production elements and the television people can’t see beyond the next reality show. And then of course there is the “Josh Harris factor” which I can’t (or don’t want to) shake.”
Whether you think Wired City is an abhorrent example of Internet over-sharing taken to the extreme or you too cannot wait to begin lifecasting 24/7, it is instructive to look at how Harris thinks it can work. He has been obsessed with this idea longer than most people. Below are some slides taken from his pitch document and the entire document as well.