Not-so-secret lives on smartphones

There may be no better way to report on the internal lives of others than to examine what's on their phones

Call it journalistic phone hacking with consent.

On The Secret Life of Students, a recent documentary series on the UK’s Channel 4, cameras tracked 12 freshmen through their first four months of college. There was one difference: Every single online interaction they had was tracked too. The students—together with their parents and university—gave full consent to having their phones essentially bugged, and anyone they interacted with had to give their permission too.  

Producers parsed through 200,000 text messages, calls, and social media updates, which pop up onscreen as bubbles above the students’ heads whenever they interact with their phones.

That was possible thanks to Digital Rig, new software from Raw TV, a production company in London, made specially for the documentary team. The software was pre-installed on iPhones that were given to the students, and transmitted their every online move in instant streams to producers in an office. The producers saw a separate stream for everything from search histories to Twitter activity, with each appearing like a Facebook news feed showing live updates from the participants. A team of five monitored the feeds 13 hours a day, seven days a week.

“If we wanted to do an honest and accurate representation of teenagers, it would have to involve their digital lives,” said Tim Wardle, who headed development of Digital Rig at Raw TV.

The result? So far so stereotypical, it seems. As critics of the program have pointed out, the binge-drinking banter, efforts to figure out laundry without mom, and—um—scares over chlamydia, paint the typical landscape of British college life with more of a crude roller than a fine brush.

But it’s an effort to capture the depth of our online lives, which so far hasn’t translated well to screen (how visually engaging is it to watch people slouch over and tap into their phones?). And it’s a first step towards mining a wealth of interiority and motivations, which are otherwise shrouded from the camera, for storytelling.

“We originally thought that young people would use Facebook and digital communication to stage-manage their lives,” said Wardle. That wasn’t the case. Candid messages are thrown into the digital ether without regard for their permanence or the number of eyeballs that can scrutinize them. “They found it much easier to articulate how they felt to each other honestly when they weren’t in the same room,” he said.

Digital Rig could also get interesting when it alters the course of a series mid-production. Longform documentaries are always going to miss key narrative moments, as camera crews can’t be around 24/7. Monitoring a subject’s digital footprint means cameras can be marshaled on short notice if it seems a dramatic event might kick off, or producers can call subjects and tell them to film the moment on their phones. Meanwhile, interesting online conversations might spark producer’s questions for the next shoot.

The software could be an important journalistic tool to profile subjects. In a world where we all live, work, and play online, it could document a lot about the cultural texture of our time. The big challenge will be getting anyone older than college age to dare consent to it.

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Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw. Tags: , ,