Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Don't chase Instagram likes and YouTube followers

At Sundance, the actor says the hunt for fame can dilute creativity.

Abrar Al-Heeti Technology Reporter
Abrar Al-Heeti is a technology reporter for CNET, with an interest in phones, streaming, internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. She's also worked for CNET's video, culture and news teams. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
Expertise Abrar has spent her career at CNET analyzing tech trends while also writing news, reviews and commentaries across mobile, streaming and online culture. Credentials
  • Named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has three times been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
Abrar Al-Heeti
3 min read
Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who launched HitRecord 10 years ago, says the plethora of online platforms today has its fair share of benefits, and also drawbacks.

Michael Muller

Thanks to tech, 2020 might be the best time to be a creator, says actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Countless resources are right at our fingertips -- filmmakers can watch and upload videos on YouTube , and photographers can post and view myriad images on Instagram

But the hunt for likes and followers in the current social media landscape comes at a cost, Gordon-Levitt says.

"When your desire for attention, as measured in likes and followers, is top of mind, it really does contaminate your creative process," he told me from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Sunday. "If you're overly focused on what others think of you, that can really harm your unique and honest voice."

At TechCrunch Disrupt in October, the actor -- who has starred in films including Snowden, Looper and The Dark Knight Rises -- said platforms like YouTube and Instagram are a "net negative" for human creativity because their business models force users to prioritize getting more likes, followers and subscribers.

That doesn't mean these platforms are all bad, he notes. They're still a way to share beautiful art and content. The problem, he says, is the business model, which "ultimately is leading to anxiety, depression and an over-fixation on attention. We should be able to have a giant library of instantly accessible videos like YouTube, it just shouldn't be monetized the way it's being monetized."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

HitRecord has morphed into a platform where anyone can spearhead a creative project. 


Ten years ago at Sundance, Gordon-Levitt launched HitRecord, an online community where people collaborate on creative projects ranging from film to music to writing. Someone who's written a script and is looking for an animator, for example, can use HitRecord to find the right talent. The focus of the platform when it launched was different. He and co-founder and Broadway producer Jared Geller, along with friends and colleagues, would start projects and use a website to invite others to collaborate. But that structure was limiting, since there were only so many people they could include. 

As a result, HitRecord morphed into a platform where anyone could start and lead their own projects and find collaborators online. Late last year, the team launched a free HitRecord app for iOS and Android. And at this year's Sundance, they changed things up. Instead of inviting others to collaborate on short films they were making, the team showcased projects being led by people in the online community and invited others to contribute. For example, one woman from the UK sang a vocal hook and put out a call on the platform to have someone else write a verse, which a Sundance attendee did. He performed it in front of an audience, which sang along as the woman watched in real time.

"Being creative together with other people is just a really positive and meaningful experience, and quite different than a lot of the culture you find around creativity elsewhere on the internet," Gordon-Levitt says. 

Geller, HitRecord's co-founder, told me the premise of using the platform isn't necessarily to seek attention, but to collaborate and create with others. Therefore, he says, it breeds a more positive community than other platforms. 

Gordon-Levitt and Geller have never framed HitRecord as a ticket to a career in the creative industry, or as a way to break into Hollywood. Money isn't totally out of the question, though, as the team says it's paid various contributors over $3 million. But Gordon-Levitt maintains that creativity shouldn't always be equated with professional or monetary success. 

"Oftentimes, if you spend your time and capacity trying to pursue a career, you're at risk for having a less meaningful and joy-filled creative life than you would if you didn't try to make your creativity your livelihood," he says. "People ask me all the time, 'How do I break into the industry?' and I say the industry has mostly to do with luck. But if you want to be happy as a creative person, that's not luck. That's under your control."

Still, the actor speaks with energetic optimism and palpable enthusiasm when he reflects on the tools and resources now available to creators. 

"When I was a little kid, I remember making little videos on my family's camcorder and just dying to be able to edit them, but that just wasn't a possibility," he says. "Nowadays, the same 10-year-old can absolutely shoot and edit and everything. It's wonderful."

Watch this: Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks sci-fi, 'Snowden' and the internet