Joe Swanberg was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1981. He moved around quite a bit growing up, even spending two years on an island in the Pacific Ocean named Kwajalein. He studied film production at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he developed an interest in emerging video technology and the creative possibilities of the Internet. He became an avid web designer in school, and did this to make money while he financed his first film, Kissing on the Mouth (2005). He also worked for the Chicago International Film Festival as "Travel Coordinator," though he had no formal experience with this prior to accepting the job.