About a year ago, a college senior and Facebook veteran taught me how to share intimate information on social networks. His first rule was ironclad: “You gotta be transparent about your love life.”
On his campus, it’s axiomatic. When you get serious or even unserious with someone, or go through a breakup, you revise your Facebook stats. That update — “Joe is dating Jade,” “Jade broke up with Josh” — is relayed to the site’s news feed, a mini-Reuters for gossip, where it apprises a network of maybe 15 or 500 people, with links to thousands and even millions of others, of your joy or sorrow.
But not every detail of your life, he went on, should be broadcast: “If I have a new idea about a movie or book, I keep that completely off the feed. I don’t need people thinking I’m having a quarter-life crisis.”
Aha. I smiled weakly. Matters of the heart should be bellowed all over the Web, while pontification about “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Superbad” belongs in the vault. This seemed completely backward, but also recognizably backward, just more evidence of the loopy exhibitionism of fully wired people.
But that was a year ago, before I joined Facebook myself, and before I started hanging out on quarterlife.com, a new social-networking Web site for emo 20-somethings that also features a decent TV drama called “quarterlife” about emo 20-somethings. Now the guy’s policy makes perfect sense.
“Quarterlife” is the Plymouth Rock of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the virtuosos of character-creation behind the relationship dramas “My So-Called Life” and “thirtysomething.” In the spring of 2006, the pair cobbled together a Mayflower and fled network tyranny — and a canceled pilot at ABC — to begin life afresh on the New Web. “Quarterlife” is the Internet’s best-wrought original series to date.
At the center of the show is a character named Dylan Krieger (played by Bitsie Tulloch), a tell-all blogger and kinetic, unkempt Winona Ryder type — lovely in repose, which she almost never manages. Something in her jumpiness and easy blushes suggests a hair-trigger immune system, eczema and blood-drawing personal habits like hair-pulling and nail-biting.
No wonder, then, that Dylan’s sexuality is construed as a solo affair, confessed into the mirror: her laptop’s internal camera, with which she makes lonelygirl-style video for her blog. She confides in the mirror-camera that she loves a neighbor named Jed (Scott Michael Foster), but we learn that Jed loves her best friend, Debra (Michelle Lombardo), who in turn loves Jed’s filmmaking partner, Danny (David Walton). Sidelined in this lovey fray is a nerdy video editor named Andy (Kevin Christy), who, like Dylan, seems to have an erotic relationship with his computer, and Lisa (Maite Schwartz), an anorgasmic actress.
Sexuality and romance, though, are secondary themes here; the burden of work, especially creative work, takes priority. Each character tries to make money and art at the same time. This same longing also pervades the quarterlife social network. Like a small, expensive New England college, the site clearly aims to attract disaffected dreamers, with forums devoted to acting, art, dance, design, film and video, music and writing. Users can upload their own work to the site.
Which raises a question: Does Web exposure count as artistic achievement, or is the Web just a way station on the road to mainstream recognition? It’s hard to tell what conclusion to draw from Herskovitz and Zwick’s own story. Having attracted more than two million views since its Nov. 11 debut, “quarterlife” is now slated to appear on NBC starting in February. The show, over which Herskovitz and Zwick will maintain ownership and creative control, is at last ready for prime time.
This is rich: ABC originally commissioned Herskovitz and Zwick to make a pilot called “ 1/4life,” only to drop it from the fall 2005 schedule. Angry at network executives empowered by media consolidation, the pair overhauled the show and put it online, leaving behind in TV-land other writer-producers, many of whom are now striking against the same corporate entities that bedeviled Herskovitz and Zwick.
Before its online premiere, Herskovitz hastened to reassure fans that “quarterlife” on the Web shouldn’t scare anyone, and he courted traditionalists, emphasizing that the show was “a regular television series.” Now that NBC is clamoring for it, he stresses the show’s experimental aspect, recently telling The Hollywood Reporter, “This is really a new form that doesn’t pertain to any other series or program out there.”
The characters in “quarterlife” vacillate between those same extremes: they want to create work that is not so original as to be incomprehensible, and not so ordinary as to be obsolete. In recasting this perennial challenge for a new generation, Herskovitz and Zwick have cannily positioned the Internet as a supercharacter. It is life’s all-seeing arbiter and rainmaker — a god, really. At the same time, the producers have kept their focus on the vulnerable mortals who sacrifice their personal lives for that god’s greater glory. Dylan waxes poetic on her blog; Lisa circulates her acting reel on the Web; Danny and Jed make film online. The Internet is the place where the young are revealed, judged, apotheosized.
And blessed with fame. Dylan’s blog — initially a source of horror to her friends, who can’t believe she’s discussing their secrets online — soon becomes an obsession and infallible archive, a source of renown.
Loss of privacy, as mid- and late-lifers have been amazed to discover in the past decade, is apparently a small price to pay for fame. For young people, joining a virtual community — one far vaster than can be cultivated in the finite social world — is the first step in fashioning an identity and later an artistic persona. The trade-off for steadfastly supplying your network with your whereabouts and loveabouts is supposed to be that when you’re done free-associating about movies and you’re ready to make one, once your work is no longer a product of a quarter-life crisis but a confident and original form of self-invention, your carefully maintained “friends” (would-be consumers and fans) will be willing to tune in.
Points of Entry
Kids Today: It’s more of the same, and like nothing you’ve ever seen. Like the youth of today. “Quarterlife” is a Web serial — scripted, well shot, addictive. What else are you going to watch with the writers’ strike on? It’s easy too: quarterlife.com
Kids Yesterday: Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick’s magnum opus, “My So-Called Life,” which ran for six golden months in 1994 and 1995, is at last available on DVD. Get your extras, your Claire Danes interviews and your mid-’90s memories on Amazon.com. Also, the sparkling mscl.com — a full-dress tribute site — is there to hold your hand when you’re mourning the show’s cancellation one more time.
Kids Tomorrow: I’ve always loved “The Burg,” an online comedy set in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s about artsy quarter-lifers, but also by artsy quarter-lifers. Much more D.I.Y. than “quarterlife,” it’s always almost out of business, like any flailing artist. “The Burg” deploys music, editing tricks and graphics in a way that reflects profound intimacy with the Web. Theburg.tv.