Joseph Gordon-Levitt Slams YouTube And Instagram For Data Mining, Praises Netflix and Apple

Joseph Gordon-Levitt at Disrupt SFTECHCRUNCH

Joseph Gordon-Levitt at Disrupt SF TECHCRUNCH


At Disrupt SF, a leading startup tech conference taking place this week in San Francisco, machine learning took center stage as actor and entrepreneur Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Snowden, Inception, Looper, 500 Days of Summer) addressed concerns over the data-mining practices of the social media titans.

Gordon-Levitt was at the show to promote his startup, HitRecord, a crowdsourced production company he founded in 2004 to facilitate creative collaboration among artists and provide opportunities for monetization. Backed by investors like YouTube co-founder Steve Chen and Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, the platform has since grown to over 600,000 creatives and now provides content to leading brands, like game publisher Ubisoft.

Aligned with the principles of his perhaps best-known character, Edward Snowden, Gordon-Levitt had strong words for YouTube and Instagram as TechCrunch Managing Editor Jordan Crook asked whether he felt they were a net positive or net negative for human creativity.

"I think they're a net negative," he said. "The basic business model of, we're going to offer a "free" service in exchange for the right to conduct mass surveillance, and then apply these incredibly expensive sophisticated machine learning algorithms to this massive data set to optimize for not the benefit of the users - not for what's going to make the users more creative or more informed or more compassionate - but optimized instead for the agenda of these third-party advertisers. I think that's a basic business model that we all should get off entirely. We shouldn't be monetizing software or businesses that way."

He referenced the writings of social media critic, Jaron Lanier who explained data privacy concerns in the context of when people trust a hypnotist they have paid to help them get over the fear of something. “Who would agree to get hypnotized by a hypnotist who's getting paid by someone else. You don't know who that someone else is and you don't know what that someone else is asking the hypnotist to get you to do. No one would agree to do that but that's what we're all doing and I include myself in that because I am on Instagram and YouTube and Twitter as well.” His social media following is significant with over 5.9 million followers on Facebook, 4.2 million on Twitter and 1 million on Instagram.

“It’s not a business model that is probably beneficial in the long term and I do think that this business model is bad for people's creativity, especially young people. If you are setting out to make a short film and you already have on your mind, what's going to get me the most likes, followers, subscribers, etc., that is not the creative process that's going to make you the most happy as a creative person. ”


Joseph Gordon-Levitt with Jordan Crook at Disrupt SF TECHCRUNCH

Joseph Gordon-Levitt with Jordan Crook at Disrupt SF TECHCRUNCH


Why Netflix Can Do No Wrong

Crook then asked Gordon-Levitt about Netflix's data-mining practices. Netflix beloved across the Hollywood talent pool for funding thousands of hours of production with its massive $8 billion content budget.

"Netflix has essentially been collecting so much data about what we like, what we don't like and how we consume content, that they are able to make very data-driven decisions. They don't pay $1 over what they need to for the content that they want and they can optimize it algorithmically so that you click on it and then you watch it," said Crook.

Gordon-Levitt responded, “I don't have any problem with using data. I don't have any problem with machine learning. The question is what the machine-learning algorithm is optimizing for and whose agenda is it serving. Netflix is a good example of what we should be doing. There's a direct billing relationship between the customer and the service. Customers are like hey Netflix, I want to watch stuff that I like. Netflix is like cool, we're going to collect a bunch of data on you and try to give you stuff that you like if that's what you want. Great.”

"I'm all for using data to accomplish a goal that the user has signed up for," he continued. "It's when the user is being subjected to these algorithms, not in their interest but in the interest of some third party behind the curtain, that's where you get into danger."

And Apple…

Gordon-Levitt’s next theatrical project, Mr. Corman, which he will write, direct, produce and star in as a schoolteacher by day, streamer by night drama will be making its debut on Apple TV+, Apple’s new subscription streaming service scheduled to launch November 1.

“Apple TV+ has reportedly spent upwards of $6 billion on content and I'm just wondering how much of that $6 billion is going to you,” Crook said jokingly.

“I'm getting to make a show and I'm delighted. Apple has been fantastic so far. I'm really excited to be working with them.” Gordon-Levitt replied.

“Why is Apple a good prospect for something like this?” Crook asked.

Gordon-Levitt explained, “When Apple drops a show, the reach is going to be incredible. There's actually a lot of overlap in the culture of what Apple is and who Apple appeals to with who my audience and HitRecord’s audiences are, that is people who are creative. There aren't any other tech giants that are making Garage Band or Final Cut Pro. Apple has a history of making the best creative tools ever and that's exactly who I want to be connecting with.”


Martine Paris

Silicon Valley freelance tech reporter covering AI, robotics, autonomous vehicles, connected home, consumer tech, gaming, security, crypto, blockchain and emerging markets. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, VentureBeat, CoinDesk, Pocket Gamer and other top media outlets. She speaks frequently at leading tech conferences and currently serves on the programming committee for the CES 2020 Digital Money Forum. Follow her on Twitter @contentnow.