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Clickbait is Tech Dystopia Taken to Its Logical Conclusion

A new Netflix series is suffused with slightly off-kilter technology and some interesting, if not always relevant, ideas

Screenshot from Netflix

For Clickbait, most of the thin but enjoyable new Netflix series plot hinges on a seems-possible interpretation of 21st-century technology, social media, and digitally influenced psychology.

It probably shouldn’t work as an 8-episode limited series and yet, somehow, the Zoe Kazan- Adrian Grenier starrer does. Without giving away too much, the story revolves around a beloved family man and school physical therapist, Nick, who is kidnapped and then displayed on a YouTube-like video while holding signs that accuse him of abusing and murdering women.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

Writ large, this is a series about family and explores how little we know about even those closest to us. More tactically, though, Clickbait is true to its title. It’s about virality, social media online dating, catfishing, and Photoshop.

It skates across the surface of a deeper exploration of who we are online as opposed to real-life — though much of this turns out to be something of a head-fake.

As a show that hinges on tech connections and communications, the show leans heavily on a relatively new trope: floating screens near characters that reveal real-time communications. Much as they were a crucial part of the 2018 film Searching, these screens from phones, tablets, and smartphones are omnipresent. If someone picks up a phone, you’re gonna see a giant digital conversation screen floating beside their heads. I almost wished one of the actors would try swatting them away like flies.

Clickbait works hard to keep the narrative just left of center from real tech products and brands. The YouTube video site is called “Likr.”

Characters may have been carrying iPhones, but I never saw a logo and the interfaces were definitely not iOS. Nor were they exactly Android.

My favorite tech entity in Clickbait is the Google Search Engine stand-in QueriNow. Like Google, it’s the go-to for anyone who wants to find anything online. It might be more effective than Google.

Google does get a brief mention. As family members and the rest of the online community discover the video and Nick’s predicament, Kazan (Nick’s sister) tries to figure out if they can shut down the video before it reaches 5 million views and Nick’s captors kill him.

“Can’t Google take it down?” she asks, which is odd since no one has mentioned YouTube. I wondered why, if these characters were aware of Google, they never used the search engine. (Even as the show leans heavily into the concept of virality, it never addresses the whack-a-mole nature of such a video: That it could be downloaded and copied well before anyone could take it down and save Nick’s life).

The deeper the mystery, the more the tech verisimilitude unraveled. I got a kick out of the Phone Crack app one of the characters used to instantly unlock a phone. Look up “Phone Crack” on Google and you get a bunch of listings for cracked screen repair sites.

Clickbait plays fast and loose with computer passwords. One major character happily hands over his phone and the details of his password to someone he met minutes before.

I did enjoy what I think is one of the first on-screen depictions of a content moderator. He sat in a darkened office among a dozen or so moderators, staring at a screen and saying “Ignore” or “Delete” into a small headset microphone as images both appalling and harmless flashed across his display. He looked exhausted and haunted by the soul-crushing task. Perhaps the MacGuffin charter is unfairly depicted as just the kind of creep who would commit Clickbait's core crime.

This guy, by the way, may be the only character who owns a branded piece of technology: A Razer computer he uses for some pretty nefarious schemes.

One of the more outrageous tech moves in Clickbait happens when one very tech-savvy and slightly geeky character buys access to a treasure trove of dating app info to hunt down one of the many catfishing dating profiles ostensibly created by Nick. This, though, is more possible than you might think.

As per usual, various characters turn out to be incredibly good at some complex technology. One extreme anxiety sufferer uses her shut-in status to teach herself how to read photo and email metadata, and ostensibly IP addresses to discern an exact address. Another character shows unbelievably expert Photoshop skills (it’s a bit unclear but I think there are multiple Photoshop experts on hand in Clickbait).

In some cases, technology is conveniently out-of-step with current standards. When Kazan drops her phone in a toilet for fewer than 30 seconds, the device is immediately inoperable. She eventually puts in a circa 2015 container of rice to dry out overnight. Meanwhile, this show is set in the present and the phone looked new enough to be at least IP67-rated, which means it could function for up to 30 minutes while under 1 meter of water.

Even though it’s technology that helps mostly average people solve the crime, this is not a tech-positive show. The villains appear to be (in no particular order)

  • Dating Apps and sites
  • Social Media
  • Smartphones
  • Photoshop

Even so, there’s not enough attention paid to the myriad privacy and security missteps made by virtually every single character.

Ultimately Clickbait is less about technology than about the lengths to which lonely people will go to find engagement, passion, and love. Technology is the tool. Nick and his family are collateral damage.

The undercurrents of the future. A publication from Medium about technology and people.

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Lance Ulanoff

Lance Ulanoff

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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