There’s a genre of video floating around TikTok, Facebook, Nextdoor, and countless other social apps that you’ve probably seen, or at least scrolled past. They’re characterized by their brevity, their fish-eye framing, and often their prominent logo placement—which typically reads “Ring.com.”
This footage comes from Ring customers, who install the company’s camera devices to protect their homes, keep an eye on deliveries, and see or interact with who’s at the door.
The #RingDoorbell hashtag has 2.5 billion views on TikTok alone. Ring captures have become their own category of viral fame, and with the premiere next month of Ring Nation, videos like these will soon have the potential to reach even larger audiences.
At the same time, the show will launder the image of Ring—a company that, over the past almost-decade, has been continuously criticized for its often lax approach to customer data, and especially for allowing law enforcement to access user videos without consent.
Announced last week, Ring Nation will craft a careful image, featuring funny animals, marriage proposals, and heartwarming neighborhood interactions, according to a press release announcing the show. And, perhaps to distinguish the viewing experience from that of just watching any random playlist of Ring videos online, it will be narrated by comedian Wanda Sykes. It comes from MGM studios—which, along with Ring itself, is owned by Amazon—and is produced by Big Fish, the studio behind On Patrol: Live (previously known as LivePD, a controversial reality show that has also blurred the line between police action, and sometimes violence, and entertainment).
“Our customers share videos with us all the time demonstrating how their Ring products and services help connect them with their communities, and protect what matters most to them,” Ring representative Emma Daniels told MIT Technology Review in an email.
These videos will likely beget more videos, says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who focuses on privacy. The TV show will highlight for viewers how “there are so many funny little moments that will be priceless—when they’ve been caught on camera,” he explains. But that will “only spread the ultimate objective,” he adds, which is “being under surveillance …everywhere, all the time.”
And of course, to catch those moments on a Ring camera with its recognizable aesthetics—well, you’ll first need a Ring camera. Once something becomes a genre proven to get views, others will imitate the success of what they’re seeing online or (after September 26) on TV. That’s how internet virality works, and it essentially makes Ring Nation an extended viral marketing campaign that will produce more videos in an endless loop—with each video serving as low-cost marketing for the product itself.
“A sleight of hand”
Ring Nation is far from the first time the company, based in Santa Monica, California, has experimented with turning surveillance videos into entertainment.
The first such video made an appearance on the company’s YouTube channel in 2015, just a year after that channel was created. In the short 19-second clip, a mother holds a four-month-old infant in front of a Ring camera and guides the baby’s hand so that the baby appears to give a fistbump. It’s titled, “Bye Daddy! 4-Month-Old Gets to Say Bye Before Daycare Every Morning.” (Admittedly, it’s very cute.)
Then, in 2018, the year that Amazon acquired the company, Ring added a new section to its website called Ring TV, a showcase of carefully curated videos from customers’ cameras. In many ways, Ring TV’s content was a predecessor to Ring Nation. Like the upcoming TV show, Ring TV features primarily funny animals, cute kids, and heartwarming neighborhood interactions.
Individual Ring owners also create their own viral media without Amazon’s direct involvement, uploading it to social media platforms where these sorts of videos get a ton of views. In one video with 3.3 million views, for instance, a teenager makes funny faces into the Ring camera outside her dad’s house. Another popular video (3 million views) shows an Amazon driver tripping in a yard as he tries to avoid stepping on the homeowner’s flowers. Many more show people that camera owners consider to be suspicious—often people of color. One example of this—a video with 4 million views—shows a white homeowner answering the door to find two men who speak limited English and who are asking for help putting out a car fire down the street. (At first, the Ring owner doesn’t believe them, but he then changes his mind, keeping his viewers in the loop via caption.)
Meanwhile, earlier this year, some Ring users started a TikTok challenge, leaving notes for Amazon delivery drivers, requesting that they do trending dances in front of the camera. The footage, which rarely identifies the person performing a dance, was then uploaded to social media, growing the accounts of Ring owners and creating an even bigger demand for more dancing delivery drivers.
While these moments may appear fun and benign, experts like media psychologist Pamela Rutledge call their use a “sleight of hand,” designed to strip videos of the contexts in which they exist: the normalization of surveillance cameras and easy law enforcement access to Ring videos. This, she says, “subverts civil liberties … by reframing the activity as normal and fun.”
One of the main liberties threatened by Ring, and the rise of surveillance technologies generally, is privacy and consent. It’s the Ring camera owner who agrees to Ring’s privacy policies and chooses how and whether to share the video by uploading it onto the accompanying Neighbors app or other social networks, making it available to the police, or sending it to the news media. But it’s not just camera owners that the devices capture. Many cameras point at public spaces, meaning any passerby could potentially be recorded, and recent reporting has shown how Ring devices can pick up audio from up to 20 feet away.
According to Daniels, the Ring representative, this type of footage captured without consent will not make it onto the show. “Like with everything we do, privacy is foundational to the show, and we secure permissions for each video from the owner and anyone identifiable in the video or from companies that hold the rights to the clips,” she told MIT Technology Review.
While this is certainly a step toward privacy on the show, and in this particular slice of content, it does little for the rest of us who inadvertently walk by Ring cameras in our daily lives.
The costs of market domination
In 2021, Ring sold 1.7 million devices, roughly the same number as its next four competitors combined, according to business intelligence firm Strategy Analytics. In other words, it has successfully dominated the market that it created—even while the results regarding safety have been questionable. Previous MIT Technology Review reporting shows that evidence on whether Ring cameras actually reduce crime in a neighborhood is flimsy.
Its market domination came, in no small part, as a result of Ring’s efforts, starting in 2016, to partner with law enforcement agencies.
At various points, the company offered free cameras to individual officers, as well as entire departments, often in exchange for promoting Ring in the officers’ jurisdictions. For a time, they also offered police partners a special portal to access community videos—stopping only after multiple media outlets reported on the process, which was followed by public outcry. Yet that didn’t stop Ring’s policing problem; earlier this summer, in a response to a 2019 request for information from Senator Ed Markey, the company admitted to handing over video content to law enforcement without the video owner’s consent at least 11 times this year.
“Everything Amazon does prioritizes growth, expansion, and reach,” says Chris Gilliard, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center and a vocal critic of surveillance technologies. In that sense, “Ring Nation is best located along a continuum … this new initiative looks like an attempt to cement societal acceptance of Ring,” he adds.
So now, Gilliard explains, it’s not surprising that the company is turning to a new strategy to further normalize surveillance.
All in good “fun”
These darker sides of surveillance technology will not form part of Ring Nation’s narrative. After all, they don’t exactly fit in with the show’s mission to give “friends and family a fun new way to enjoy time with one another,” as Ring founder Jamie Siminoff put it in a press statement.
Instead, in a self-reinforcing cycle, the show will significantly expand the audience for Ring videos, the pool of potential Ring video creators, and then (and most important) the number of Ring cameras out in the wild. And many of these new customers likely won’t think twice about what their new Ring camera is really doing.
“Ring prides itself on being incredibly accessible, [but] it’s still kind of a techie thing,” explains Guariglia of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But if you park your very non-techie relatives in front of the television all day and they see the Funniest Home Videos from Ring Cameras, Ring might spread to an audience that perhaps Amazon has had a slower time getting on board.”
In other words, if the company has its way, Ring Nation, the television show, will bring us one step closer to a Ring nation, IRL.