Internet Tales 1001: Alex Winter’s Deep Web (2015) + Downloaded (2013)

July 15, 2015 | By

DeepWeb2015_poster_sThe theatrical release of Alex Winter’s latest internet-themed documentary Deep Web (2015) at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this past week mandated a re-examination of docs covering some of the most pivotal aspects of how consumer habits were radically altered within a short period of time by crucial developments in internet software.

What the key figures in this short series share are youth and a brilliant grasp of technology which changed the way goods are accessed, consumed, and valued.

Deep Web is a natural follow-up to Winter’s Napster doc Downloaded (2013) because it delves into darker terrain where hardcore drugs could be bought and sold on a merchant site called Silk Road. Creator Ross Ulbricht was young and savvy and an anarchist with ideals that ultimately sent him to jail, and it’s a story where someone brilliant tried to make a bold statement against a failed governmental policy – America’s War on Drugs – but did so in a really extreme fashion that could never have ended well.

Downloaded2013_posterWinter’s Downloaded shares the same directorial care in assembling a wealth of interview subjects, plus substantive archival material to cover the full lifespan of Napster (or as much as its running time will allow).

Napster was and remains one of the chief reasons media is not longer restricted to what’s been consistently branded in recent years as a dying format – physical media. The loss of revenue from dwindling CD and DVD sales has also affected the survival of media sites devoted to reviewing movies and music, which DigitalBits editor Bill Hunt eloquently stated in a recent blog.

Revenue’s plummeted for many online sites, which explains why so many offer exposure to new writers, but actual pay is zilch or drying up, except for core staff. The few sites that do pay may well find themselves in the same position as The Dissolve, which folded July 8th as it failed to make past 2 years.

Dissolve bigwigs Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias talked quite candidly to Criticwire the day after the site’s closing, and while the Q&A isn’t filled with utter gloom, it does suggest that quality reviews on less mainstream, overlooked, independent, and classic films will become harder to find, let alone sustain a major site when the demand to feature shorter pieces on sexier mainstream material is more lucrative.

Napster didn’t cause The Dissolve’s demise, but it pioneered a glut of product – too much to choose from, at the click of a button, and dirt cheap. No surprise Netflix and its kin have become curators and arbiters of what many feel constitutes time-worthy media. Moreover, who needs an opinion when our habit of scrolling, shuttling, skipping, and moving on to the next suggested title (or whatever lies a row or page down) has reduced our attention span to making decisions based on glimpses and fast assessments?

Everyone who used Napster remembers the First Wow: there was an incredible variety of music and movies, many obscure, that were packed on the hard drives of complete strangers, ready for sharing. The concept’s been fully corporatized, except it’s now legally licensed movie and TV series streamed in HD for less than $10 a month.

Alongside Terms and Conditions May Apply and TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard, Downloaded was one of three internet / media-related docs that premiered at Hot Docs 2013, and I’ll revisit those and its kindred in the coming weeks because many of these films were made with both care and an awareness that history needs to be preserved –  somehow.

In our current state, a doc on Napster seems pointless, especially watching it two years since its release, which may explain why it’s not easy to find (except on YouTube), but like Deep Web, Downloaded represents the kind of great stories of human ingenuity and culture shifts which banal websites won’t cover, or at best in small word counts because the Java and Shockwave fueled ads and videos need more premium screen real estate – something quality sites are continually fighting to balance with meaty content.

Coming next: soundtrack reviews + a podcast interview with Fabio Frizzi, and links to another blog chapter on the making of Lost and Found at Big Head Amusements.

Thanks for reading,




Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Big Head Amusements

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