Audience participation was the big draw in Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch but was it actually a clever ploy to mine user data to influence Netflix content in future?
Social media was awash with people talking about Netflix’s interactive episode of Black Mirror, in which viewers got to make choices about how the drama would play out thus creating a unique adventure for each person. Indeed, the show’s creators said there were around one trillion different story combinations.
But the episode garnered mixed reviews from critics and a similar love-it-hate-it reaction from audiences. And amidst the bickering about its success or lack-of on Twitter, there were some beginning to fan the flames of conspiracy theorists suggesting it was all a clever ploy by Netflix to mine its users data for future programming.
Soon enough, Michael Veale, a technology policy researcher at University College London, was on the case. He used GDPR regulations to put forward a request for information about why Netflix was collecting data, and how it was being used. He told VICE’s Motherboard that he reached out to Netflix off the back of seeing people joke about the Black Mirror episode’s true intentions.
It turns out, it was no joking matter. Veale told Motherboard, “People had been speculating a lot on Twitter about Netflix’s motivations. I thought it would be a fun test to show people how you can use data protection law to ask real questions you have.”
He requested Netflix release information – using GDPR as a legal springboard – about “the reason its collecting data, the categories they’re sorting data into, third parties it’s sharing the data with, and other information.” Netflix was quick to hold its hands up, saying that data was being recorded to “determine how to improve [the show’s] model of storytelling.”
Veale received an email from Netflix stating that Bandersnatch recorded viewers’ choices as data to “inform the personalised recommendations [audiences] see in future visits” and that such information is gathered for the additional purpose of assisting their algorithm “better recommend tailored content to individual viewers”.
So, if you’ve seen Bandersnatch and thought it was a liberating new age example of digital free will, think again!