Movie: While most of us take it for granted these days, the world wide web we refer to as the internet has only been around as a viable means of communication for the general public in any significant way for a bit over ten years. Previous advances in the technological advancement of communication (written language, the printing press, radio, television, etc.) took decades to advance to the point where the general public was included so it makes sense that we reflect back from time to time and see how far we've come. Some people will claim that the internet has been "dumbed down" in the process, a valid claim if you're a snob, since nowadays, just about anyone can jump online and use the net. Others have focused on the potential for disseminating information of all sorts, though the commercialization of the internet is currently debated too (the potential is still greatly untapped in both regards), and the bottom line is that there is so much available on the web that it can be difficult to find what you're looking for, even with the advances in search engine technology. One early attempt to help provide a portal for folks to find what they wanted on the internet is the subject of today's review of 24 Hours On Craigslist.
Without sounding like too much of an internet newbie, I had no idea what "Craig's List" was until recently. Founded in 1995 by a decent guy named Craig Newmark in San Francisco, Craig's List was one man's idea for spreading the word about various social events. This led to an extensive section of classified advertisements and forums, all of which skipped the multitude of banner ads and commercial links so popular on major websites. A project of love rather than a means to make a quick buck, the website relied on limited funding from the posting of help wanted ads with all others being free. Word of mouth sold it to most people and the website soon became an integral part of the community. In a sense, it also formed its own sense of community (much like that of DVD Talk in recent years though to a more narrowly defined geographic region at first). The premise that sold it on the predominantly liberal community was how it gave regular people more of a voice by creating a sense of personalized community in an easy to use fashion. You could check the constantly updating website to find people looking to hook up with others, sell things, buy things, and talk about things of interest to them. While there are now a great many websites that allow you to do this, the first such site to become popular was Craig's List. Over the years, Craig branched out and now serves almost 200 cities, still maintaining the basic principles it started with, although becoming a for profit website back in 1999 (though never "selling out" as so many others have had to do). Is it any wonder that the website would become the subject of a documentary?
24 Hours On Craigslist is an attempt by director Michael Ferris Gibson to explain the phenomenon of the website by using the gimmick of a series of vignettes by real users of the service, all filmed in a single day by 8 separate crews, all recruited using the website. The focus was strictly on the San Francisco locale and an attempt to cover some of the more interesting uses of the website was obviously the focus of the documentary. I'm sure that some might be put off that the film didn't round up scores of people who found jobs using the service (boring!) or that some aspects of the website weren't covered as well as others (my own research into the Houston "branch" yielded immediately satisfying results in several areas; from looking for repair services to spotting a local porn performer I met at the 2006 Adult Entertainment Exposition) but having participated online for over ten years myself, I found myself quickly addicted to it as a superior place to surf the net.
The advertising on the cardboard slipcase for the double disc set tells that the website has had "3 billion page views (up considerably after my own experience this week) and 10 million users" (each month). Considering the sheer magnitude of the expansion the website has undergone over the last ten years, I think it has a long way to go too. Okay, so what about the documentary of this great website? Well, the project itself was rather large and apparently complicated, owing as much to the size of the task at hand than anything else. Rather than focus in on following a couple of stories, the crews made an attempt to provide a slice of life view, largely succeeding in their efforts. The chapters were as follows:
2) For Sale
10) Pets (and pet lovers)
11) Gorgeous Beauties
12) 420 Friendly
14) A Little Twist
15) Caveat Emptor
16) The Lightning Struck Tower
Each segment came across as real and unstaged, never relying solely on the freak show material that obviously helped illustrate the benefit of the more prurient aspects of the website. The people participating in the documentary ranged from the incredibly strange to the mundane "regular" people that never seem to get noticed in bigger budget efforts. Had the film been designed as an infomercial, as I saw mentioned in a local film festival commentary, Gibson would have almost certainly sanitized the segments and catered to a glossy corporate image just as if it had been designed to appeal strictly on the nastier side of the website, it would have had a lot of fantastic looking hotties chasing middle aged men without charging. No, it took the relatively objective approach and largely succeeded in doing so. There might've been moments that dragged on longer than I cared for but they were few and far between, especially considering the volume of potential segments offered up. It didn't all make sense to me and the characters showcased were not all sympathetic but I think that is a far more accurate portrayal of the topic than would have otherwise been the case.
I'm going to rate the documentary as Recommended for all it had to offer, noting that the extras were very extensive and helped address some of the concerns critics had when the film itself screened locally. The bonus footage and deleted scenes included dozens of vignettes not included in the main movie itself (while there were hit or miss, they provided an even better view of the subject at hand), along with other things that added some value to the 2 disc set. I think the documentary dropped the ball a little bit in how it glossed over the history of the company and failed to provide any contrary opinions (a quick search online yields lots of those too) but in terms of exploring the cultural phenomenon known as Craig's List, it was a solid effort. Maybe a follow up volume could be made that also shows some of the media's attention on the website or difficulties it had over the years but this was as good a look as I've seen on a web-based subject for a documentary. (Perhaps Gibson will try a look at the My Space revolution next.)
Picture: 24 Hours On Craigslist was presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen color. The quality of the individual segments varied substantially, lending an air of authenticity, thanks to the use of so many separate crews (there were reportedly 8 according to director Gibson on the commentary) but none of them used in the documentary were out of place. The deleted scenes had some that looked like they were edited out for technical reasons but the lighting varied, the locations offered up numerous technical issues, and like most documentaries, the quality of the segments varied but the editing was actually quite exceptional in how well it blended them together.
Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital that also varied quite a bit between segments although the vocals were always easily heard and understandable. The music was not a huge factor since it seemed only employed on rare occasion to punctuate the pieces. Your home theatres won't get a workout this time but did any of you expect that to be the case?
Extras: Most documentaries don't have a lot of extras but this was not the case here. The first disc had some of the best stuff, beginning with the director's commentary by Michael Ferris Gibson where he goes into great detail to provide some context to the movie. While he doesn't address every concern people have had, he seems to have a good understanding of the limitations of the format he used to make the show. There were even times when he was more interesting to listen to than some of the more drab characters from the segments. The first feature on the initial disc after that was the 17.5 minute long Behind the Curtain: Meet the Craigslist Staff where Craig and others at the company discussed some of the positive, and negative, aspects of the website's growth (and the internet in general). It had an even more humanizing impact on the concept of the website than many of the guests interviewed. This was followed by the Making Of 24 Hours feature lasting around 15 minutes where some of the segments were shown in a different light (it was almost like a air traffic control tower). The third feature was called Rebuilding the Tower of Babel where the director and some of the staff behind the website discussed the ideas behind the communication ideas (from technology to the Biblical references) though it only lasted about 6 minutes and could have easily been the subject of a documentary itself. The last feature was another 6 minute long segment about Who Is Craig? where some of the characters asked and/or discussed whether or not Craig Newmark actually existed or if he was a myth (which I'm sure would surprise him). There were trailers and DVD credits with a message to insert the second disc for the deleted footage. The second disc had the better part of three hours of deleted footage (2:46:33) where some of the technical flubs were still present and some of the scenes showed more character in terms of what was left on the cutting room floor. In all though, the extras were better than the documentary itself in terms of describing Craig's List.
Final Thoughts: 24 Hours On Craigslist was a glimpse into a single day, 8/4/2003, of the San Francisco portion of the universe that is Craigslist. The overall concept of the show was to explore the sense of community being built by the website, especially in a day & age when the internet seems to be doing just the opposite for many folks (isolating them from others). There was coverage of a few of the negative aspects of the website (how scammers have used the internet as another tool to screw people over, how political bullies try to shout down people based on generic ideas about specific political affiliations, and the balance between free speech and illegal activity) and while the general leanings of the concepts behind the website were definitely progressive, there were no overt attempts to quash those with opposing viewpoints on the part of the management of the website. The documentary served to provide some substantial insight into the community building aspects of the internet, as well as reminding us of where it all started (and no, it had nothing to do with Al Gore) and for what purpose (military communications in the event of a nuclear attack). If you're reading this review, you probably have at least some passing interest in the benefits of the internet and websites such as Craigslist, so until the director does his follow up with something like 24 Hours on DVD Talk, this will have to suffice.