Okay, hold up.
I don’t want you going to think this is true. This is a hunch. This is a notion.
I want you to understand I don’t like holding hypothesis that can’t be easily proven. I grew up around conspiracy theorists, and I feel like I can recognise the mental habits that make a conspiracy. Conspiracies rely on being nebulous, unfalsifiable and emotionally satisfying. That is, they want to attribute blame to an unknowable ‘them,’ they can’t be shown to be wrong somehow, and they feed into emotional responses we already have.
Furthermore, I haven’t seen the Netflix movie Bright. I’ve seen its advertising, and that convinced me that Bright sucks and I don’t want to watch it, which in a reasonable world would be a good sign that the advertisers were good at their job, but that’s not how advertising is advocated as working in this mixed up ole world of ours.
With those clauses in mind, the actual quality of Bright and if you liked it, is really moot.
Instead, I want to talk to you about how and why Bright gets talked about at all.
When Bright dropped, I learned about it from Netflix, who sent me an email, telling me I’d probably like it. I imagine on a scatter graph I probably fall into something like a target audience for this movie, since I watch genre movies and shows about cops being shot in the face by crime wizards, so it isn’t like it’s an unreasonable ask. Then I heard about it again, another email from Netflix about the exact same movie.
In the same day.
I also use imgur, a site that’s like reddit for cowards. Imgur is a sinkhole of a community, completely convinced it’s a wonderful warm and loving home for people who like swapping racist and transphobic memes, but also like gifs of dogs stripped of the audio from Youtube. I don’t actually use imgur for its community, but it has a scroll that shows up on the side of images you upload and it shows you thumbnails of the Top Images of Imgur today. It’s usually a handy little tool for only ever being two clicks away from someone being gross, usually about a woman.
Now, I cannot give you records of this time. But I remember, checking, regularly, and noticing that the top six thumbnails for imgur, regularly, featured the poster for Bright. Eventually, I opened it up and was curious about why it kept showing up… and I found a post that said what I think now as the Standard Bright Spiel:
Something something, critics hated it, but I thought it was super good, I really loved the world-building.
And that was that.
Except it was there again the next day, and I went to check it out and – to my surprise, I saw a different riff on the same idea.
Shows what critics know, this is a dope movie with like, great world-building.
And okay, no big deal, imgur has this problem with efforts to build karma like this. Something is popular, then people copy that post to try and get to the same level of popularity. No big deal! Almost unremarkable, really.
Except it kept showing up. And it kept being different, while still being basically the same. For weeks.
Bright was at the main page of Imgur regularly. It got talked about on reddit, too, in some weirdly unrelated spaces – I saw people mentioning it on Magic: The Gathering boards, and I saw Youtube suggestions flocking to talk about it, with the same pattern. Good world-building, critics hate it.
Now, I don’t have documentation for this. Going back to find it, in the fragmented nature of sites that don’t often archive, is really hard, and now, other search results muddy looking into it. So I can’t present this case as provable, either. But I think that Netflix made Bright and advocated for it online in ways that were algorithmically exploitable (it’s a few seconds of effort to make a imgur script that can mass-upvote things, for example), in order to get people to check it out quickly, then used the original watch details to compare to a Box Office release.
The rough numbers we have suggest it might be around 11 Million people, which is probably pretty good for a movie, but since I can see Netflix movies in my pants at 2 in the morning when I’m depressed and can’t sleep at a rate of $15 a month, money that I already consider Voltron money, it seems a bit disingenuous to treat viewers the same as box office returns.
Now is this all part of some ulterior motivation or agenda? Not really. I think it’s just that Netflix wanted to make something successful, so they carpetbombed media outlets that mattered to them, then defined what constituted success, and then they ran around proclaiming their thing a success. The people financing it are the people they’re trying to impress – and when you’re dealing with big marketplaces, a reputation is often as good as a product.
The thing with conspiracy theories, he said, to loop it back around, is that they tend to show up three red flags: Nebulous actors, unfalsifiability, and being emotionally satisfying. This doesn’t have a nebulous actor per se – I’m putting this blame squarely on Netflix, who want Bright to succeed so they can have a genre success in their stable and make them seem even more legitimate as a media empire and make more money. Their identity and motivation are pretty reasonable, and it even complies with the ways they do their business in the past and we’ve a provable model for how it should work. It isn’t unfalsifiable though it would be pretty hard – I’d need some way to be confident that in all the meetings the Netflix marketing team had about this movie, none of them featured a conversation about manipulating online algorithms, which seems really weird because Search Engine Optimisation and Social Media Presence is kind of ground-floor stuff for corporations these days. Passes on one, maybe fails on the second.
The reason I think this falls into conspiracy territory, but a conspiracy I’m inclined to agree with, is because the component that needs for this to be true is something I find very emotionally satisfying: That the populations of websites like reddit and imgur are kinda easily manipulated, reactionary dolts who love the idea of liking something that The Critics don’t. I don’t think all the presence of Bright on social media was just marketing and astroturfing – but I do think that those things put it in the way of reactionary people who would advocate for it because of how those marketers framed it.