The Social Netflix

Dear readers,

No matter what I’m doing, whether I’m being social, or working, or procrastinating, or flirting, I’m rarely all that far away from a screen. That’s particularly true now that I’ve got an iPad. While I look forward to writing more about books and movies eventually, it seems natural to blog about how we use technology at this moment when everything is being mediated in new ways by technology that, within recent memory, simply didn’t exist.

Take, for example, Netflix. I’ve been using it for about a decade, with only infrequent interruptions. Right now, it’s going through such a painful adolescence that we may be about to break up, though I’ll be back once Netflix gets the agreements from the film industry that it so clearly deserves. How we use Netflix says an enormous amount about what is working, and what isn’t, as we try to adapt to the “state of leisure” in the 21st Century.

It’s clear where we’re headed: movie theaters will continue to grow larger and more immersive, because that’s the only thing they can do that people can’t duplicate at home. They will also keep getting more expensive, until going to see a movie will be roughly akin to the way, right now, some people infrequently go to the (live) theater. Meanwhile, all kinds of media, from television shows to blockbuster films, will be available on-demand at home, and you will decide whether to pay a flat fee or watch commercials.

That raises two questions: Are we there yet? What will this golden age of media feel like?


We’re definitely not there yet, and the road there is starting to get pretty frustrating. Netflix can’t get the streaming agreements it needs from the major studios, partly (I think) because of pre-existing agreements with premium cable channels like Cinemax. As a result, you never really know what Netflix is going to have, and what it isn’t. Netflix intentionally makes it hard to figure out if a film in your queue is going to disappear, so I constantly find myself ready to watch a certain film, only to learn that it has vanished. Initially, of course, I responded by watching films frantically, but at this point my reaction is one of diffidence. Even with films I really want to see, like Winter’s Bone, I find myself saying “maybe I’ll watch it, and maybe I won’t.” In other words, this complex state of uncertainty devalues films.

Apple is overpriced, but that would be OK if it had everything. It doesn’t.

Accessing popular films isn’t particularly difficult: you can rent them from Redbox kiosks, you can pirate them, you can pay to watch them legally. But there’s no good way to watch classic or foreign films other than a Netflix DVD subscription, and that’s problematic for reasons I’ll discuss below.

Meanwhile, the situation with TV shows is just horrible. Season 4 of Damages exists, but you’ll have to pirate it or watch it on DirecTV, if you are one of their indentured consumers. Hulu+ was supposed to be a great solution for the home and for mobile devices, but the industry keeps denying mobile access to its shows, and playing hide-and-seek with what Hulu maintains for any given show. Plus, it has tons of commercials, and you’re paying to watch them.

In a world where you can purchase most any song ever recorded from iTunes, or stream virtually anything via Spotify/Rdio/etc., this constipated state of video delivery makes no sense. I don’t care what business agreements are holding us back — I’m not going to play the game of pretending I’m in the film industry, making the hard decisions, or the game of siding with one company (Apple, for example) against another (HBO, for example). Right now they all suck.


I can tell you what I’m hoping for. I’m hoping that, in the future, people will watch lots of movies and television shows in their odd off hours, and that they’ll post ideas about what they’ve seen to various social networks.

I’m not really expecting that streaming video will have an impact on live social interactions, because the accessibility of visual media has turned out to be a social curse. Just this summer, I was involved in at least fifty conversations, few of which I initiated, about whether a given person should watch a given movie or TV show. As Portlandia (a great show that you should watch) demonstrated in one memorable skit, we all feel vaguely anxious about *not* watching the important stuff, and at the same time, we realize that watching it all is impossible.

Therefore, what you watch really depends on what kinds of Freudian neuroses you keep in your hip pocket. Are you hung up on masculinity? Well, then, I recommend Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, and Breaking Bad. On sex? True Blood and Californication. On work? Nurse Jackie and (again) Mad Men, and maybe Damages or Suits. On snark? 30 Rock and Community. On adolescence? Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries, and maybe Gossip Girl. How about sentiment? Friday Night Lights and Modern Family. But even within these broad categories, individuals differ, and so much about what we take from these shows is difficult to express. The same goes for films, everything from The Social Network to Crazy Stupid Love. Personally, I thought Midnight in Paris was much less interesting than Vicky Cristina Barcelona, also by Woody Allen, but because people like movies that imply a free introductory lecture on Gertrude Stein, I’m not going to win that fight.

Furthermore, a lot of these conversations about what to watch are examples of accidental bad faith. The people involved may not really intend to watch the film or show — in fact, they’re looking for reasons not to do so, because they sense that this film won’t allow them to spend a blissful two hours re-tracing the maze of their own psyche. The fact that the conversation is happening at all is mostly just a symptom of anxiety.

The remaining technological hurdles make all of this worse. Since you never know what exactly will be showing on Netflix streaming, it often devolves into a glorified version of channel surfing. God forbid you find yourself hanging out with somebody on the 3 DVD plan, desperately trying to figure out which of their 2 or 3 movies to watch. I’ve also spent countless hours transferring stuff to friends, and even to myself, on flash drives, because “the cloud” is not, as yet, really up and running.

Because media is accessible, and because we worry about it, the days of treasuring a film with a whole group of people seem to be coming to an end. I used to get together with friends to watch The Big Lebowski for the nth time, partly because it’s a great movie, and partly because renting movies was a pain. Now, you get those same friends together, and I guarantee they’ll be worried sick about whether or not to watch Blue Valentine.

The wonderful, important conversations that we have about films and television shows happen after “THE END,” if they happen at all. Yet most often, when I make plans to see movies with folks, there’s no time at the end of the movie to let it seep in, and to discuss it. That’s the point when everyone’s most exhausted, and if there’s a journey to make to get home, going home takes priority. That’s where the Internet comes in so handy — seeing, via one of our feeds, what a friend felt after they were done watching The King’s Speech. Maybe they were speechless — if so, they’ll brighten the feed another day.

That reminds me. I still haven’t seen that movie about the stuttering king. I gotta go.