Culture notebook: The day web promos got personal

Sometimes something in our culture pulls back the thin curtain between Internet users and those reaping and repurposing those users’ personal information.

The new NBC television show The Blacklist has a released a deliciously creepy promotional gimmick that ties in with one’s Facebook account to generate a very clever, very unsettling interactive experience.

After watching a promotional trailer and a couple of canned videos where the show’s stars seem to be interrogating the viewer, one logs in using Facebook account (accepting the NBC terms and conditions, of course) and then watches as friends’ profile pictures seamlessly pop into the video on the screen.

The context is answering questions about friends (“which of these friends is most paranoid about privacy” is one of the questions).

The campaign is the brainchild of Toronto digital interactive agency, Secret Location.

Why this is significant

This certainly isn’t the first time a television show has had a web tie-in—be they webisodes <shudder> or other variations.   And it’s not the fact that the underlying paranoid tension has been moved online, nor even that the tension is personalized and exploited by this campaign.

Rather this promo exposes another significant transformation in our relationship with surveillance and data mining. 

There’s a weird kind of arc that seems to come with the introduction of new technologies.  They’re created for one purpose and rolled out in furtherance of that purpose.  But once they’re out—in the wild, so to speak—they become fair game and people start to play with them. It’s reminiscent of Rubin’s line from the William Gibson short story The Winter Market that “Anything people build, any kind of technology, it's going to have some specific purpose. It's for doing something that somebody already understands. But if it's new technology, it'll open areas nobody's ever thought of before. You read the manual, man, and you won't play around with it, not the same way.”  Eventually, finally, this play starts to itself become commodified. 

We seem to be arriving to this point with surveillance culture.   Surveillance and data mining have been widely rolled out purportedly for security purposes.  But once the tech is out there, people started to play with it. There are sites that amalgamate public camera feeds, as well as Puppycam, Pandacam, and Condorcam that draw significant crowds. Then there are artists like the Surveillance Camera Players, and works by Banksy that variously involve, invoke and incorporate surveillance cameras.  Artist Hasan Elahi has turned his experience of being tracked and erroneously added to the “no-fly” list His startling and hilarious TED talk FBI, Here I am describes his ongoing project of self-surveillance, documented on his website.



Along that continuum we see a change – from the pure fun and subversion implicit in the Surveillance Camera Players, the educational intentions of the San Diego Zoo’s cams, and on to the commodification of the feed of something like puppycam, which is advertising supported based on viewer hits. 

With this latest jump, our relationship to surveillance and data mining has again changed.  Now the model is not simply commodified – somehow the omnipresence of these things in our lives has become so normal that the advertising hook here isn’t based on the *fact* of the surveillance, but rather on the “fun” of seeing what results from omnipresent surveillance and data mining.