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  • Writer's pictureRobert Nelson

Creating a New Social Reality

Creating profiles to make a realistic social network….

for a fake social network.

Hartley, an upcoming web series on the new Sideway streaming app, is told through an interactive user experience which aims to create a completely realistic (yet fictional) social network, similar to Instagram or TikTok. Creating a social network that is rich and engaging enough to feel real is essential to the show atmosphere -- but making it feel authentic takes a lot of work.

To create this environment, the show's production team had to cast extras to create fictional profiles - with a minimum of 200 background profiles. Unlike extras in most productions, these needed to be fully conceived characters with a backstory and online presence. In most movies, you might see 50 to 100 extras passing in the background of a standard office or school scene, but you have no ability (or reason) to learn anything about them beyond what you see on the screen. In Hartley, the audience is able to dive through the app like they would on popular social media apps, going down a rabbit hole of clicking tags, profiles, and people, all of which have to be strung together by the Sideway team.

Mallory Astrow in Hartley

The process began by contracting extras to create fictional profiles through Backstage (an online casting network for professional productions), which yielded about 100 extras-worth of usable content. These pictures and videos then had to be compiled into real profiles for the extras by workers at Sideway, who take all of the media submitted by actors and enter them as data in Excel-type spreadsheets. This work includes sorting pictures in a way that groups ones taken during the same period into albums, dating pictures according to age and setting cues, and more. Once all the pictures are organized, other finishing touches such as fake names and profile pictures can be added.


This is the most challenging step. Sure, anyone can take 20 photos and put them on a grid with a made up name and call it a day, but how do you make it feel real? An account that belongs to a person should evolve with that person: their aesthetic preferences and the style and syntax of their writing should grow as they do. It needs to have detailed relationships, locations that are realistic and explainable, and more. Many of these profiles need to interplay naturally with each other to form a robust social network, because social media is an connected web.

Skylar Kardon in Hartley

So what makes a great profile? The challenge in making a truly great profile lies in trying to imitate the human patterns of growth over social media, as mentioned above. Because each of these subjects are meant to be portraying young adults from 16-20, if their social media covers a three year age range then the style and content of how they show themselves to the world needs to reflect that change on some level. This may come in the form of adding or taking away hashtags, a changing vocabulary or rhetorical style, and drawing out more mature references and emotions when captioning posts. Other smaller challenges and roadblocks include details like whether or not pictures from vacations believably line up with school vacation periods and the geographical hemisphere we have outlined.

So now let's flash back to that school or office scene with 50 extras in a movie: in Hartley, each of those 50 extras needs to have their own friends, their own stories, their own life. If you access one person’s profile and look at their post, not only does it need to feel real, but it needs to include other extras and then a comment section filled by other accounts, all of which have had the same amount of work put into them. It can start to be a formidable task, especially since it’s never been done before.

JJ Siopongco in Hartley

In productions like Hartley, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of main-character details. But the backdrop upon which the plot unfolds, like the minute details of these profiles, is what sells the audience on the world once the plot draws them into it. From the beginning of the hiring process to the end of the organization and strategizing, attention to detail is all that matters when building a world like this one.

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