The death of Jess Search at 54 left me stunned and sad. Obituaries rightly focussed on her huge contribution to documentary and social impact filmmaking – but miss something key: Jess was also a web pioneer.
Shooting People, the digital community she co-founded with Cath LeCouteur 25-years-ago this year, did some groundbreaking things in the curious times between the implosion of the dotcom crash at the start of 2000, and the explosion of Web 2.0, some five years later.
It was this Jess that I knew and worked with for several years as Shooting People's first hire. I've not written about that time before, but the lack of reference to it in her many obituaries, pushed me to start writing, and once I began, I fell down a rabbithole of memories from a short and special time in the web's history: post-web, but pre-smart-phone.
The decisions Jess and Cath made over two decades ago, seem more relevent than ever, as the web looks again towards small and human-run communities across the fediverse, grappling with questions of moderation and sustainability, while trying to chart a different course to the web monopolies. This post-crash and pre-2.0 era that Shooting People exploded in, wasn't so much about a business model, it was a period of post-web/pre-tech-dystopia, open, queer-punk peer-to-peer culture I'd largely forgotten, until I started writing this.
As I started I couldn't stop, so I'm sorry it’s a long-read as I'm not sure how to trim it. But there's chapters –
Why do we write these things after a death? To stand under the tree of a superstar, shaking its branches in the hope a leaf or two lands on you, so you can say “I was there”? It feels like something else.
Shortly before she died, my sister June said she felt humans are like crystal glass in that we have many facets. We shine through it like a light, but everyone we know sees a different facet; no one sees the same refraction of us.
Reading the Isle of Thanet News tribute to Jess I learned of a different facet to the person I knew. A mother, deep-rooted in, and loved by her neighbourhood, fighting for housing rights, caring for the ill. She appears soft-edged and gentle-eyed, de-Londonised and now beloved citizen of Margate.
I write instead of the facet I was privileged to know of her 20 years ago, working from her spare-bedroom in a high-rise over Bethnal Green. This facet is from the early days of her first startup, Shooting People, until around the start of her second, BritDoc (later Doc Society). It’s different to the local-hero mum of Thanet News, or the Skoll World Forum Closing Speaker next to Al Gore. That's why I write this.
There’s no humblebrag here - I regret both how our friendship ended, and of the years that passed without meeting for 'that drink'. Even when the news came through a few months ago that she was ill, asking us to send our love and rocket fuel, I wrote something but didn’t send it, biding my time, unable to believe the invincible Search wouldn’t be here any more.
My eyes leak as I write this, again, as they have a good few times since the news. I'm not good at ‘butching it out’. I knew her for such a small fraction of her life, I have no idea how those closest to her, her family – fill the Jess-shaped hole in the universe that’s left. I understand it's be following her wishes and keeping alive the joyful 'lucky f**ker' spirit she possessed in her final weeks.
Try to imagine if you weren’t there, or remember if you were – the brief window between when the web had arrived mid 90s and landed on the desks of most people with a computer, and when everyone carried the web in their pocket. There was web for those of us who wanted to connect, but nothing had been gamified to keep us hooked stroking our phones, getting upset by strangers, for five hours a day. We still had that five hours.
When there was no Facebook or YouTube, no influencers, vlogging and selfies – and only a third of homes were connected to the Internet. When 'memes' were a Richard Dawkins concept, discussed in the New Scientist. When, post dotcom-crash, most of the money and VCs had shifted focus away from web. Between the arrival of the first film for cinema shot on digital video, and the conversions of cinemas to digital projection. Between Hoxton being a centre of digital creativity, and it being a Nathan Barley reference.
This is the space where Shooting People was born in 1998, and it’s right in between the dotcom crash of 2000 and the founding of Facebook and YouTube in 2004 that Shooting People decided to convert from free email list run by volunteer labour, to a sustainable business.
Driving this is Cath le Couteur, who was part of the UK’s first internet cafe, which started in 1994, the women-run Cyberia. She worked at the BBC as an imagineer, while finishing studies at NFTS as film director. Stu Tily, was part of the brains behind ‘Fax Your MP’ (turning emails to any UK politician into faxes to them) and then CTO of another.com, famous for novelty email addresses. And Jess, then the assistant commissioning editor for Independent Film and Video at Channel 4. Her main broadcast documentary credit was a film about Bruce Lee for the Channel’s Bruce Lee Night.
In 1998, in a pre-GDPR-gambit, Jess and Cath had taken "sixty email addresses that we poached from various places like the New Producers Alliance book and also people that we knew" (ref) and sent them an email.
Jess, Cath and Stu used Mailman (aka list.org), an open source email list manager overseen by the Free Software Foundation's GNU project, that bundles emails received at an address into a single email digest. It lets list moderators accept or reject emails and send messages to those they’re rejecting. There were (and still are) 1000s of such lists, mostly in the tech and academic sector. Cath and Jess decided to launch one for indie UK filmmakers and within a year, they had 4,000 members.
To recap, Jess and Caths' plan for Shooting People demonstrated:
- A new type of web business built around freely licensed ‘user-created content’, beyond web 1’s Search and Hosting/GeoCities-type businesses. Shooters’ product was not its own content, but the curation, moderation and categorisation of other people's content, within a closed community.
This is the heart of Web 2.0.
- You can build this business from premium subscriptions (aka Fremium) where users get value for free, but more value if they pay. Since the successful launch of ad-free YouTube Premium in November 2014, all the web titans have offered freemium subscriptions: Twitter/X Blue, Meta Verified, Snapchat+, Tumblr Ad-free, TikTok Lemon8, etc. It seems Musk's gamble in buying the already loss-making Twitter was largely about believing he could make paid subs work.
This is a major part of Web 2.0 since 2014.
- You can do this on an open protocol (email), with an open source tool (GNU Mailman). Lock-in and patented tech are not required. What’s unique is your brand (which Jess and Cath worked really hard on), culture, and the quality of your curation. Web 2.0 ignored open protocols, but it's the heart of the push to protocol-based social networking, aka the ‘fediverse’ of the W3C’s Activity Pub (aka Mastodon, Pixelfed, Lemmy, PeerTube, etc), BlueSky's AT, Matrix, Scuttlebut and others.
This is the post 2018 'Fediverse' web, offering an alternative to the social web monopolies.
- You can’t avoid paid and professional human moderation. Paid moderators who can apply the same posting guidelines to all content, not letting the crowd (aka privileged, ‘time-rich’ / privately-funded) dictate what is and isn’t problematic. Web 2.0 also ignored this and continues to try to automate / crowd-delegate moderation, even in the aftermath of genocide in Myanmar or countless dead from Covid disinformation.
No-one's doing this yet at scale.