Interview: ‘Do Not Track’ director, Brett Gaylor

Do you know which companies are tracking your daily activity on the web?

Do you know what schemes those companies are concocting to leverage your data and separate you from your hard earned cash?

Do Not Track - Interview

Do Not Track is an interactive documentary that will tell you this – and more. This innovative media project examines what happens to your data online and what you can do to protect yourself against the venomous interests of Big Brother, Big Sisters and Big Business.

I’ve been watching the documentary online with great interest, it’s excellent, but I’m sure they’re collecting data about me …

I recently got chance to talk with the director, Brett Gaylor, here’s the interview:


KS:          What’s your history? What was your journey to here?

Brett:     I’m a film maker and one of the films that I made before this was called RiP, a remix manifesto which was about copyright law and creativity. Do Not Track is an interesting follow up to RiP, because RiP was very much a celebration of internet culture and the connectivity and freedom that it’s engendered.

Between RiP and Do Not Track I worked at Mozilla where we created a Javascript library called Popcorn.js which was for timing media to events.

Mozilla was also doing a lot of research, development and activism around privacy issues. I wanted to combine those two areas and came up with the idea, “What if you could have a project that played like a movie but was able to incorporate real time data?”

Then it seemed obvious that if we wanted to tackle privacy we should use the users data so that it would provide another emotional point, another tool in the storytelling kit.

KS:          You worked on the development of Popcorn?

Brett:     I was the director of that project.

KS:          It sounds like it was all converging towards the right point in time and technology, but was there any specific inspiration for the Do Not Track project?

Brett:     One of the things that I did when I was working on Popcorn is we did a lot of hackdays so we’d bring film makers and developers together and a colleague of mine had written a browser add on called Collusion which later became called Lightning by Mozilla, and so I think that was one of the inspirations.

We could see how many third parties are loaded on any web page using Lightning, it’s quite an eye opener. So I had that same emotional reaction that viewers have when they watch the first episode of Do Not Track. Also there was a new technical and format innovation in that, that I hadn’t seen applied before to storytelling, so I guess seeing that browser add on and starting to dig into the code was the real inspiration for this project.

KS:          My next question is around your influences both as a film maker and in terms of interactive media. I wonder if you could talk about the stuff that really moves you.

Brett:     Sure, I come from a tradition of activist film making and there’s a fairly strong tradition of that in Canada, so if you look at films like The Corporation or Manufacturing Consent or even the films of somebody like Michael Moore, there’s a tradition of general activism and social justice film making.

The thing that I like about those films is that they’re truly creative and playful and humorous, so definitely that’s been an inspiration through my film making and interactive work. In Canada with The National Film Board and others, there’s a sense of creating work that’s in service of the public.

A big part of the projects that I’ve been involved with, is allowing the public to somehow shape the actual media work, so it’s different because they’re involved, or it’s different because it uses some aspect of their own data or they’re asked to contribute to it … There’s a long history of that in Canada even before digital technology.

There was a project called Challenge for Change at The National Film Board in 1967 which was always about making media with the people who were the documentary subjects. So you can see that influence in projects like High Rise or Do Not Track, where we have a relationship with the audience, where they can react to us, they can add their own data or they’re watching it as their data’s being used.

KS:          Are there any examples of any natively interactive projects, interactive stories or media that have affected you or that you liked that have been influential for you?

Brett:     Sure, I’m a big fan of Kat Cizek’s High Rise project. Certainly a lot of the experiments in early HTML5 work like Chris Milk’s The Wilderness DownTown, definitely have been influential in this space of using user’s data to create work.

A company that I’m working with right now is Upian which is based in Paris and they’ve done a lot of online documentaries. One of them is called Gaza Sderot, that was certainly influential in terms of the interface for how you create documentaries, those are some great examples.

KS:          What would you say was the biggest challenge for you on Do Not Track and in telling that story or opening that particular area to get involved and show that to the audience, what was the biggest challenge for that?

Brett:     Well we’re an international co-production, so there are people involved creatively in Canada, France, Germany, United States, so I think that that is certainly a challenge for this type of production. When you don’t have everybody in the same room then production can be difficult – so just organizing …

It’s a seven part series so there is a lot to do and a lot of different opinions and perspectives to integrate into the final work, so that’s certainly been our biggest challenge. Then I think the other is a cultural challenge in how you discuss privacy. I think a lot of the audience will immediately say that they don’t have anything to hide, they’re not concerned about invasions of privacy – so finding creative ways to counteract that notion has been a challenge.

It’s not something we haven’t been able to overcome but it’s something that is at the top of our mind when we wake up every morning. “How do we meet people where they’re at with their understanding of privacy and change their mind?”

KS:          Do you look at the data in terms of how many people are interacting and putting their data into the documentary? If so, what’s your response rate like, is it good?

Brett:     It’s very good, people have been responding really well. We weren’t sure about what taking a serial episodic approach would be like for the web documentary format because it is quite new for audiences, but we’ve been really pleasantly surprised with the amount of people that that find the project in the first place, and then return for more.

We’re seeing that over the two and a half months that it’ll take to release it, we’re seeing the same audience levels that we might expect for a project like this over an entire year, so that’s encouraging. The amount of people that come back is quite high, so on a given day up to forty percent of the people that might  be visiting the site might be return business which is really high, so we’ve been definitely pleased by that.

KS:          In terms of how many people are actually putting their data in, out of your total viewers, how many are interactors would you say?

Brett:     A high number, I don’t really want to pin point it right now, but it’s a high number, the way that we look at that number is our conversion rate, which is the same if you’re creating marketing campaign, you know you’re trying to understand how many people do the things that you want them to do.

KS:          Of course, but are you at liberty to tell us the numbers?

Brett:     Not right now, I want to wait until the series is done before we look at those numbers but it’s high, it’s higher than what I saw when I was doing project management roles at Mozilla. You’d be happy with a ten percent conversion rate and at least in our early days, we are seeing twenty to thirty percent with Do Not Track. But it’s easy to let those numbers float away from us before we actually have a chance to look at all the data.

KS:          Having largely finished the series and delivered five out of seven episodes, is there anything you would do differently with the project?

Brett:     I think that what interactive documentary producers could do more of in general is adopting a more data driven approach to design.

When you’re making videos games or when you’re making consumer facing web products often times you’re going to build into the cycle of your work, your user testing. That will allow you to actually pivot if you learned something about the way that audiences are reacting to your work.

In documentary it’s very much an art driven process where you have a vision and you work with a good designer and your editor and your composer to deliver a simulated vision and I think that should never go away.

But it’s really important on the web to have people play test your stuff, find out how people react to your interface or know the places that they get lost or their level of comprehension. You should try to know all that before the work is released.

Sometimes we didn’t anticipate things that people would love and so you think, “Oh God I wish I could spend way more time producing some of those things,’ and this thing that you thought was going to be incredibly crucial to the user experience, people don’t have a strong reaction to it.

We were really interested in making sure we had follow up articles and original research that went into each episode and people enjoyed those, but I think it’s a small amount of people that find their way to that work. We put a lot of effort into that. All those things required tons of pre-production and time and money in the production cycle.

Then on the flip side we find that when we engage users between episodes with things like surveys they love it. The reaction to that is super strong.

KS:          What scares you most in the subject matter of privacy and tracking? What was the thing that really gave you a chill?

Brett:     I think that understanding how closely tied to our own identities our phones are. This was not top secret information but when I talk to smart people who are able to lay out just how tightly wedded our identities are to our location in the world based on our phone. That really gave me cause to be worried and made me realise just how widespread, quotidian and boring this surveillance is. Almost everybody that I know in my life is sending their location data, who they talk to, their call records – all of that is being recorded and sent to a third party that they might not be aware of, so that was a revelation for me.

I think also just looking at how pervasive the advertising economy is to the web. It gave me pause precisely because I think it’s like building a house on quick sand. I don’t think that is a stable foundation for the web and so much of the modern economy is based on having a healthy web and so much of our growth is based on that, so that was a bit scary. Then I think just like everybody, if you do your research on the Snowden revelations it’s quite shocking to realise that we’re living in countries where everything is recorded.

Our private lives can be reached back into if we become a person of interest. If there was a proposal to put a camera in our home and record every aspect of our life but it wouldn’t be activated until we did something wrong, I don’t think any one of us would agree to that, but that’s what we’ve let happen with our digital stuff.

KS:          How does Do Not Track conclude?

Brett:     In the seventh episode we take everything that we’ve learned about you during the series and we try to predict now what future you’ll live in if you continue on your present course. So the seventh episode is meant to really look at the futures around privacy and surveillance, but tailored to you, based on what we’ve been able to learn about you as you watch the series.

KS:          That sounds like a really fitting conclusion, I look forward to that, it sounds brilliant. Last question, what are you up to next, what’s your next project or what are you doing next?

Brett:     What I look forward to next is turning off the computer for a while, that’s as far as I’ve looked ahead.

KS:          Okay well that’s got to be a good thing.

Brett:     Cool.

KS:          Excellent, great to speak to you and thanks for your time.

Brett:     Thanks so much Krishna I appreciate it.


Watch Do Not Track here.

Final episode released on June 15th 2015.



About the author

I run Bellyfeel which gives me the opportunity to develop innovations in media, education and entertainment, plus exploring the future of storytelling. More here...

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