Referred to as “the founding father of personal blogging” by the New York Times Magazine, Justin Hall started his Web-based diary “Justin’s Links from the Underground” (links.net) while a student at Swarthmore College. In 1994, during a break from college, he joined HotWired, the first commercial Web magazine started within Wired Magazine. Later Hall became a freelance journalist covering video games, mobile technology and Internet culture. In 2007, he graduated from the M.F.A. program in the USC Interactive Media Division. His thesis transformed surfing the Web into a multiplayer game through PMOG, the Passively Multiplayer Online Game. Hall went on to serve as CEO of GameLayers, which raised $2 million to turn PMOG into The Nethernet, an MMO in a Firefox toolbar. He later served as a producer of iPhone games with ngmoco:), then became ngmoco:)’s director of culture & communications. After working for ngmoco:)’s parent company DeNA as a recruiter, he left the company in mid-2013. Today he lives in San Francisco and produces a Web-based video series, The Justin Hall Show.
You first used the Internet in 1988, before many of us were aware it existed. How did that happen?
My family had a home computer in 1981, and by 1983 I had experimented with a modem, dialing through the phone lines from one computer to another to exchange messages and look at documents. I was very fortunate to have early access to these tools and freedom to use them in my home!
I had a single, hard-working Mom who, in 1988, hired a medical student from Northwestern University to live with us and help take care of her two sons. He had an Internet account through Northwestern’s VAX system, and he let me roam through the USENET newsgroups. Before the Web, USENET offered global message boards on a wide range of topics populated mostly by academics. I wrote an article about cool stuff I found on the Internet for the 12/14/91 issue of the Parker Weekly!
Can you describe your undergraduate degree in “Meaning, Context and Media”?
Swarthmore in the late 1990s had roughly 21 departments, and by my junior year I had taken classes in about 19, but no more than two classes in any one department. Swarthmore required eight classes in a single department to become a major. My advisors suggested I propose a special major consisting of classes I’d taken; I wrote about eight proposals before “Meaning, Context and Media” was accepted. To finish my coursework, I wrote a 40-page hypertext thesis on the Web that connected a diverse range of topics with pictures and poetry. Yowza.
What was it like freelance writing in Japan and elsewhere?
From 2001 to 2005 I had a steady beat covering mobile and wireless technology for a Nokia-sponsored research publication called TheFeature. From 2001 to 2003 I was based in Tokyo as one of the youngest members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. I wrote articles about the first mobile phones boasting cameras, music players and video chat. I wrote about mobile multiplayer games and mobile dating and mobile spam. During this time I freelanced for Wired, Rolling Stone and the South China Morning Post. I landed on the New York Times op-ed page, proposing the government fund video games to encourage civic participation. While I was being paid to write about digital culture, I documented my travels on my personal website.
How did you get interested in video games?
I love exploring worlds and testing limits at my own pace. By the time we had typing and computer class with Kathryn Smith in Middle School, I was sitting in the corner playing Leisure Suit Larry.
After college in 1998, I had an on-air TV show that was cancelled after the TV station received letters of protest due to the explicit content on my personal website. I switched to writing about video games professionally and keeping my Web page as an unpaid side project.
Over the years I’ve produced my own games; I was fortunate to run a company making an online game but we weren’t a business success. Games are more complex to make than Web pages.
What is “Justin’s Links from the Underground”?
I started a personal website in January 1994. It seemed only proper to introduce myself, so I posted a picture and some favorite sites. During the next few months, I added more promising Web links and information about myself.
The structure of the Web excited me: I could make pages and link between my mom, dad, brother, grandparents, uncle, friends, school and hometown. Once I had a growing collection of personal stories and weird links from the Web, I pulled it together under a single name: “Justin’s Links from the Underground,” named after Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (which I hadn’t read), which Al Decker ’89 had borrowed for the title of his college newspaper column. The logo was a caricature of Hunter Thompson I based on a doodle by Ben Gordon ’92.
I used my site to showcase the weird, the wild and the wonderful on the growing Web—and a lot about myself on the side. In 1995, I had 26,000 daily readers, mostly for my weird links. Meanwhile I was getting positive feedback on my personal stories; people emailed their own lengthy accounts of challenged relationships. I realized I couldn’t publish these other folks myself; I should instead teach them how to make Web pages. I created a set of tutorials and worked hard to make sure people knew how easy it was to share on the Web.
I firmly believe the Internet gets better if people contribute. I saw personal Web pages as an antidote to pre-Web corporate-controlled narrow-purview media. For a while I thought if I couldn’t find something I was looking for on the Web, I should make a page about it. But that wasn’t sustainable in the long term; it was much better to teach people to make Web pages instead.
My timing and persistence meant that “Justin’s Links from the Underground” was one of the early guides to the Web and helped a few folks start their own websites. I’m proud of having helped spread access to personal publishing technology!
Tell us about your new project, The Justin Hall Show.
When I write on the Web, I use links to add layers and context. With video, I can use voice, music, pictures, effects and text to make an immediate multilayered story.
I had a flash of insight last year: I needed to get a green screen for my home. A green screen, plus a video camera, meant I could film myself telling stories and change the background behind me. So I left my job, purchased a green screen and began filming and publishing personal videos on the Web. I love making and sharing media! To spend more time on videos, I’m using Patreon, which is like Kickstarter—a crowdfunding platform for individuals to support artists. With Patreon, people can pledge $1 or $2 for each video I make. I’m grateful to have Internet patrons supporting my experiments.
Branding The Justin Hall Show has been a challenge because it chiefly covers whatever I’m interested in at the moment—personal expression, new technology, lifestyle experiments. I’ve interviewed journalist Walter Isaacson, software pioneer Richard Stallman, journalist Quinn Norton, entrepreneurs and artists. I covered Burning Man, Amtrak travel from Chicago to San Francisco and the Game Developers Conference. I experiment with content and form for each episode. Recently I tried singing a jingle!
Were there people or activities at Parker that influenced the choices you’ve made since graduating?
Parker gave me many potential places to find and experiment with my voice, from publications to theatre productions to Student Government. I was an eager participant, and I love that Parker supported experimentation across these activities. After working on the Weekly, the Record and Phaedrus, I was ready to publish myself on the Web.
Amidst all that activity were some smart, hard-working faculty who pushed us to think about the social context that afforded our progressive education and encouraged us to make the best of our opportunities by doing good in the world. Andy Kaplan turned the key questions of Student Government back to the students. He said it was up to us, and we had to figure out what that meant. It was chaotic and challenging, but it was ours, and that made it valuable.
I recently digitized 270 “Comments on Individual Student” reports my Parker teachers wrote between 1979 and 1993. I was humbled to read how these hardworking, well-intentioned people dealt with my at-times disturbing behavior. Their comments suggest I made a concerted effort in my youth to undermine planned activities and focus attention on my personal drama. I feel some chagrin about this now and a ton of gratitude: I was in the hands of passionate people, many of whom knew me for more than a decade, guiding me toward the best use of my energies. Maybe more discipline in a more traditional school would have straightened me out somehow, but I enjoy being a little bit crooked, and I think fondly of Parker for encouraging me to be both creative and responsible.
What are some of your favorite Parker memories?
In recent years, a number of my peers have been working on immersive experiences for people, presenting a rich world mixing electronic entertainment and live performance. You don’t just watch a show, or play a game, you feel surrounded by a living environment that interacts with you. I think back to the Medieval Faire, for which 5th graders transformed an entire wing of the school into a 15th century European town with all manner of folks going about their business and presenting their affairs. In 6th grade we dressed up like Native Americans and settlers who had inhabited Illinois before us. We used multimedia stagecraft to turn the school into a time machine! I believe we were doing some advanced immersive learning. Bravo! I am grateful to have had those experiences, and I think they suited my hyperactivity well.