By Don Willmott
Web Guru, Web Celeb: A Chat with Justin Hall
The World Wide Web has many pioneers, but few of them have achieved true Web celebrity. One who has is 21-year-old Justin Hall, whose passionate three-year Web journey could be metaphorically connected to Lewis and Clark's canoe trip up the Missouri River, if I were a more poetic writer.
Excited by a copy of Wired he spotted on a newsstand, Justin ended up working at the magazine and later joined the team that founded the HotWired Web site. He went on to consult for C|Net and joined forces with the Cyborganics, a group of twenty-something Webheads (including many Wired alumni) who plot the digital future from the heart of San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch. In his spare time, he established his own Web site, Justin's Links from the Underground , which featured a list of sex-related links comprehensive enough to earn him instant notoriety at a time when most people were just starting to understand the Web.
Over the past two years, Justin's site has evolved into a massive free-form autobiography and daily diary that doubles and triples back on itself through links while it simultaneously expands outward to include just about everyone he's ever met. Meanwhile, Justin, now a junior at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, convinced the school to let him spend time this semester teaching a class about the Web. Who better to chat with about the Web's past, present, and future, especially in the wake of the recently passed telecommunications bill, than Justin? After all he may soon become one of the Web's Most Wanted. Here are some of his thoughts, gleaned from a far-ranging interview conducted last Sunday night:
On "decency" on the Internet:
"I think what I'm doing is very important because talking frankly and honestly about sex and sexuality and our bodies and life and drugs can save lives, because there are kids who aren't going to get this information, and the Internet is a great way to get it to them. I'm also in favor of family values. Each family should be able to pick its own values. . .I want a relationship between parents and kids where parents are responsible for what their kids are checking out on the Internet. Parents should be able to supervise their kids."
On potentially becoming the Web's Most Wanted:
"I believe in what I do, and I'm not going to change what I do to accommodate the law. I know I'm doing the right thing for humanity, and it's between me and humanity. It's not an issue of me changing my behavior because of the U.S. Government. In seven days, when the law becomes valid, it's going to become open season. Someone who doesn't like what I have to say or the way I'm saying it is going to try to use the government as a tool to make me be quiet. I don't see myself altering my content in any way. And I think I'd make a very good witness for my own case."
On being a Web "exhibitionist":
"Well, I'm trying to think of other appropriate synonyms. What you see on the Web is the way I lead my life. I like to think about it as honesty. I think I've got this need to engage people, and yeah, it's loaded with my own baggage. But how I lead my life on the Web is how I lead it in the world and around my friends. I'm engaged in the world in all sorts of ways, just laying my stuff out there and demanding similar sorts of stuff from people I'm with."
On how he would change Wired magazine:
"They need stories about more authentic individual people who aren't distinguished by the amount of money they generate or the power they wield, but rather are enabled and emboldened and empowered by technology. I'd want to see more cover stories of freaks using technology and minorities using technology. . .The coverage now is kind of a rich-white-male rehash. They pay for themselves with rich white guys, and they think that they only want to hear about themselves and their toys, and perhaps they do. I'm just happy I'm in a business where I don't have to cater to my constituency so specifically."
On his Cyborganics colleagues:
"You can't be an entrepreneur in this industry without being a technological pioneer because the stuff is so young. You have to carve something out for yourself. Creating a vision applied to existing technology means jerry-rigging something new. They're bridging the space between humanity and computers."
On the work that goes into his site:
"I get done with my night about about 1 A.M. and then write for two hours, so I don't go to bed until 3 or 4. The thing is, every paper I write for school is a Web page. So is all my correspondence. The lines between my life and my Web pages and my e-mail are all blurred. I guess I spend six to eight hours a day working on things that will end up on my site."
On the size of his site:
"I don't know. Hundreds of files at least. It's 50MB after a double compression, so I don't know the real size."
On asking his fans for financial support for his site:
"I've solicited donations, and I'm going to put the ledger online so people can see who's donated and how I'm spending it. Everything's going to be on the level between me and my readers. I get the feeling that once people see that other people are donating, it'll increase. So far I've gotten $288. For someone to take the time to write me a check crosses the boundary between virtual and real life. I could make T-shirts and make money on the markup. I get those offers. But I want to do it honestly. I never want to charge people to access my site, and I never want to have advertising, but my site costs $500 a month to run."
"It's the biggest buzz I've found. My class is at 8:30 in the morning. I chose a time when dedicated people would show up. I teach what I know, and my syllabus works well front to back. My students: I love these kids. We have great discussions. Everyone contributes and participates, and even though they don't get credit for it, they write papers. They're making their own media."
On wiring higher education:
"Every college in the country, all these students, generate piles of scholarship that molder. I want it all online. Then if I'm writing a thesis on Faust I can go out and find the last ten papers on Faust and then find a way to build on their scholarship. I think that would really accelerate learning. The thing is that universities are hedging their bets when it comes to sharing materials and being decentralized, and there are copyright considerations. I have no qualms about pushing it with idealism and saying the world would be a much better place if everyone who got on the Internet had access to all those papers. Kids could get online and learn about anything they wanted. They could have their own Swarthmore education with a simple will to read, and they could even e-mail their papers to their professors. It would be total decentralization of education. That's the most profound use of the Internet. When I get out of college, that's what I'm going to be working on."
On his future plans:
" I think I'll travel a lot and speak a lot. This summer I'm trying to do a six-week tour of the U.S. and other countries just to say hey, I want to talk to your community group or your cafe. If you'll pay my Greyhound bus fare and let me sleep on your floor I'll come talk to you about the Internet because I love it and I love meeting people, so let's do it. After college, my Web site is a given, but I want to take the power of my pulpit and expand it and bring other people in. Weirdos, freaks, whatever. I love meeting weirdos. I want to expand the range of voices. I met a guy who does work with gang kids in Chicago, and he said that when he gives these kids a video camera, they get a sense of their own voice and their lives are completely changed. They can make media. It's a great way to get them engaged in the world. Why not take the Internet and extend it to people who don't have jobs? I want to take the power I have and give it to other people by traveling around the country, working with community groups, getting their pages up, and linking to them. Whatever I do, it's going to be independent and about empowering people through technology and being a writer and trying to mobilize people."
Next Week: The Internet Tooth Fairy pays a visit.
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