Do Not Track and In Limbo Interactive: personalized web documentaries

Analysis of two web documentaries coproduced with France, Canada and Germany whose content adapts to reflect their audiences’ personal data.

Do Not Track and In Limbo Interactive were both coproduced by ARTE and the NFB, and released at the beginning of the year. These two web documentaries take the medium to new levels of sophistication by “personalizing” their content and making it more relevant to individual viewers.

Do Not Track and In Limbo Interactive also have something else in common: they both call into question our relationship with digital data, as well as how this data is commercialized.

The Internet knows what you don’t like before you do

Do Not Track aims to show Internet users what their personal data is worth and how it is mined. Its call to action is compelling: “Let’s track the trackers together.”

Presented as a “personalized” documentary series, the seven episodes of Do Not Track deal with advertising cookies, social network filters and the permanent geolocation technologies built into our smartphones. After reviewing various tracking methods, episodes 5 and 6 challenge Big Data and its algorithms, while the final opus offers us a vision of the future and what the data industry has in store for us.

Image from Do Not Track

These complex topics are presented in a distinctly “web native” manner, making use of the Internet’s cultural codes: an abundance of animated GIFs, infographics, animation, etc.

Do Not Track was co-produced by ARTE (France), the NFB and Radio-Canada (Canada), and the BR Channel (Germany). Paris-based studio Upian coordinated the coproduction, which took nearly three years and a total budget of 640,000 euros, in addition to the 110 people mentioned in the credits. Funding was provided by the above-mentioned broadcasters, the CNC (20,000 euros for development and 100,000 euros for production) and the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund (between $50,000 and $100,000).

2015: year of the information odyssey

Online since February 9, In Limbo Interactive takes us on a subjective and poetic voyage through our data’s memory. The title can refer to either the grey area at the boundaries of the Underworld or, in computer jargon, the status reserved for data that has been erased from a system but still exists in a storage medium. This allusion to in-between spaces is a decidedly fitting title for this unclassifiable film, which navigates between the abstract concepts of recollection and memory, and the concrete and real digital data that holds our memories today.

Filmed using the Kinect camera, which allows users to create 3D models of their subjects using interconnected dots, these interviews present widely diverging points of view from people such as Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering and transhumanism pioneer, and Cathal Gurrin, “the most digitized person on the planet.”

Image from In Limbo Interactive

Rather than presenting a series of short clips, filmmaker and producer Antoine Viviani has opted for a longer, almost entirely linear format, with interviews running around thirty minutes.

More modest in terms of production volume than Do Not TrackIn Limbo Interactive was also coproduced by ARTE and the NFB. The documentary also received support from the CNC and the European program MEDIA.

Online data mining is a major issue in our all-digital daily lives

As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” Both web documentaries show that personal data has become a precious commodity in the 21st Century. Management and exploitation of this data has become a key challenge, first for the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) empires which were built upon it, and then for the majority of businesses and institutions.

Image from Do Not Track

Do Not Track is also intended to help its viewers by exposing how the services we use on a daily basis are tracked.

Each episode is accompanied by a carefully selected array of articles written by the episodes’ authors or found online. These articles present methods, sites and plug-ins that can be used to avoid being tracked. “This resource centre is an extremely important part of the program,” stated Do Not Track producer Alexandre Brachet during the presentation of the project at Cross Video Days last June.

Customized content creates a greater impact

“How can we present content that has no pictorial representation?” With this single question, Alexandre Brachet sums up the common issue for these two projects. While they answer this question by creating two very different visual languages, both projects choose to personalize the content being shown to their audience.

In both documentaries, Internet users are asked to voluntarily do exactly what is being denounced: provide access to their data so that it can be integrated into the content. This is a necessary paradox, used to more effectively grab the viewer’s attention.

Starting in the very first episode of Do Not Track, the program determines where I am, my city’s time zone, the type of computer I own, etc. With each successive episode, the questions become more specific and the connection to Facebook or Twitter becomes harder to avoid… Internet users allow themselves to be tracked, on purpose this time, for the purposes of the demonstration.

In Episode 3, Do Not Track goes so far as to invent an application, Illuminus, which boasts that it can assess individual clients’ insurance risks by analysing their Facebook page. Pure science-fiction? Without a doubt, not for much longer…

Image from Do Not Track

Do Not Track ends by sketching out rough portraits of its viewers, based on what they were willing to reveal about their private digital lives, what was tracked while browsing (amount of content read, time spent online, number of clicks) and a real-time analysis of their personal data, including the informational websites they consulted and Facebook pages they liked.

Image from Do Not Track

Like Do Not TrackIn Limbo Interactive bills itself as a “personalized film.” At the very beginning, Internet users are invited to share their personal data by granting access to their different social accounts (as well as their email address, webcam and location). Later, they will be rewarded with ten or so personalized sequences, which are incorporated into the film with full transparency.

The data we have left on Facebook, Instagram and Gmail gradually comes into play, encouraging us to participate further. The documentary’s format then begins to mirror its subject: the digital memories that are slowly being compiled online, collected almost against our will. No warning or analysis here: the data is delivered in its raw form, as if to better illuminate the extreme objectivity of this memory in comparison to our more flawed, human memory.

Image from In Limbo Interactive

International broadcasting and production: a strategy that pays off

The final content customization method implemented in Do Not Track involves adapting the content to the user’s nationality and language. The international coproduction concept is thereby taken to extremes, with the coproduction and distribution strategies for each episode being adapted to both the content and the targeted country.

The different French, German and Canadian journalists who accompany main filmmaker Brett Gaylor introduce the project to their respective countries. That’s the entire point of the first episode: the presenter (and part of the content) varies according to the country where the user connects to the Internet.

Episode 3, coproduced with Germany, is thus broadcast only in German, while the episode focusing on the smartphone has partnered with Al-Jazeera’s online information site, AJ+, for broadcasting purposes.

It’s an international strategy that has clearly paid off. By June 15, the series had already totalled close to 700,000 visits, including 255,000 from Germany, 145,000 from the United States and Canada, 137,000 from France and 125,000 from elsewhere in the world.

This popular success confirms the effectiveness of the strategies adopted by ARTE and the NFB several years ago, allowing them to pool their efforts and build larger audiences for their respective web productions.

After Fort McMoney, which explored natural resource development, these two web creation pioneers have successfully and brilliantly tackled another contemporary issue – one that will probably remain relevant for quite some time. It’s a safe bet that a few more chapters will soon be added to Do Not Track.

Oriane Hurard
Oriane Hurard is a producer with Les Produits Frais as well as a festival programmer for new storytelling formats (transmedia, webseries, VR) and a new media and community management instructor.
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