‘Fast-paced’ is a term that almost all of us use to describe the hectic society we live in, and while Netflix is one of the rare new additions to our lifestyles that was supposed to slow this rhythm down, the streaming company is now about to speed things up. Two weeks ago, Netflix announced that it is testing a variable playback speed option, testing on Android first. This new feature will allow users to slow down the speed of their videos to 0.5x or 0.75x, or accelerate it by 1.25x or 1.5x.
Sure, the thought of slowing down your Rhythm + Flow might not have occurred to many of us, but raise your hand if you’re increasingly taking advantage of the 10 second skipping button that Netflix already offers. Somehow, we are okay binge-watching an entire season in two days, but we still feel like we can’t spare time to sit through an entire three-minute monologue. That’s exactly why this new feature doesn’t seem so out of context as it is only adjusting Netflix’s streaming service to our Instagram-trained attention span.
It’s not only positive feedback the feature is receiving, however. Actors, directors, and creators took it as a lack of respect towards the seventh art—understandably. Filmmaker, actor and comedian Judd Apatow called out Netflix on Twitter, saying, “No @Netflix no. Don’t make me have to call every director and show creator on Earth to fight you on this. Save me the time. I will win but it will take a ton of time. Don’t fuck with our timing. We give you nice things. Leave them as they were intended to be seen.” Netflix is every author’s ultimate frenemy, it offers big money and visibility, but comes with a high creative cost. The streaming tycoon is already responsible for closing down movie theatres, erasing our freedom of choice through its algorithm, and for dipping into big data to homogenise the production of new, flawless content. With this new feature, it seems as though Netflix is investing, once again, in quantity over quality.
In response to the growing cry outs, Netflix has clarified that the playback speed feature is just a test the company is running alongside many other different trials, that it wouldn’t be featured on other devices such as laptops or TVs, and that it has no intention of turning this optional setting into a default. A Netflix spokesperson told Android Police, “We’re always experimenting with new ways to help members use Netflix. This test makes it possible to vary the speed at which people watch shows on their mobiles. As with any test, it may not become a permanent feature on Netflix.” The spokesperson added, “We have no plans to roll any of these tests out in the short term. And whether we introduce these features for everyone at some point will depend on the feedback we receive.” In this regard, it wouldn’t be surprising that users take advantage of the feature, as Netflix consumers are, arguably, being trained to consume more, more quickly. Isn’t that the whole point of Netflix anyway? People want quantity over quality, sorry Apatow.
In its defence, Netflix has rightly pointed out that DVD and VHS players always had the playback controls, suggesting that just because the option becomes available doesn’t mean that everyone will be watching Stranger Things’ upcoming season at 1.5x speed. Only time (and the test version) will tell.
Truth is, since the Walt Disney Company (DIS) announced it was going to launch its own streaming service called Disney+, Netflix had to come up with a new exciting feature, one that would keep our attention. Now that we are just one day before the US launch of what is set to be Netflix’s biggest competitor ever, it is becoming clear just how stressful it must have been in the Netflix offices during the last couple of months. But what if, in an attempt to keep up with the threatening competition, Netflix pushed the fast forward button a bit too much?
Last month Netflix’s CFO David Wells announced that in 2018 alone the streaming giant would be forking out upwards of $8 billion on producing 700 original titles. For relentless binge-watchers and professional procrastinators alike, this was probably equally exciting and daunting news. However, on a more serious note, this is in many ways emblematic of the attention-driven digital economy we now find ourselves in, defined by sheer excess and algorithmic consumption, and its effect on how we consume culture; extending to every corner of the cultural landscape, not just film and TV.
As Netflix strives for a global monopoly, pumping out unprecedented amounts of content in over 190 countries to around 118 million users, it is arguably us the consumers that are suffering as a result. The oh-so-hopeful neoliberal dogma of endless free choice is ironically underpinned by a snake-like grip on production, distribution and consumption. Hours upon hours have been spent staring gormlessly at my TV, trudging through the endless ether of rubbish on Netflix to then, in sheer frustration, give up and start Peep Show for the 13,683th time. If Netflix hadn’t already proved you definitely can have too much of a good thing, then surely this is it. In its search for worldwide economic and technological capital, Netflix has sacrificed quality in favour of incessant mass-production.
Minus the intellectual-elitism, this is all somewhat reminiscent of the work of German philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer and their work on the culture industry. They argue that capitalism (Netflix as a proponent here) has sought to it that culture is resorted to almost-mechanical mass-production in order to meet only our most basic needs, leaving us docile and idle consumers at the expense of culture’s potential for subversiveness. This account comes from a sneering disapproval of popular culture, which I think is a bit reductive, but what’s interesting here is that, like many of the digital platforms we use on a daily basis, Netflix also has control over how and what we consume on a personal level. Its process of recommendations supposedly accounting for around 80% of content watched on the platform.
Netflix’s recommendation system works by taking a detailed log of our individual viewing habits and spitting out multiple profiles on each user based on taste as well as behavioural patterns, which are then pooled into thousands of different audience groups. Then, this data is pumped through an algorithm that combines it with an extensive collection of tags on each and every episode, which can include anything from specific genre-traits to moods or emotions that are invoked when watching. These tags are meticulously compiled by Netflix staff and freelancers who watch every TV show and film from start to finish. Even the little image previews you see on the homepage are selected from a number of choices per TV show or film based on that same data—using algorithms to work out which image is most likely to make you click that title. When you break down the process in this way and consider just how much control Netflix has over what we consume, the romantic idea of endless free choice in the neoliberal digital economy seems like nothing other than an illusion.
It’s clear that culture is at a precarious point right now. With Netflix striving for a worldwide monopoly of distribution and production in film and TV, constantly expanding into new geographic regions and pumping out a stupid amount of original content, it ends up running the risk of overshadowing local producers across the world and sacrificing culture’s value in the process, whilst at the same time using our online habits to control what and how we consume. This extends far beyond just film and TV too. Take Spotify for example, we now have access to a previously unimaginable amount of recorded music yet we still often find ourselves stuck in a never-ending loop of the same old stuff, our recommended artists permanently haunted by that friend with the terrible music taste who used your account that one time.
Some might argue that it’s never been better, precisely because of the sheer amount of different content available. However I think it’s less about a dull, homogeneous cultural world than one that’s been forcibly fragmented into so many different niches within an attention economy that, in seeking to keep us habitually logged on, uses algorithms to keep us in a perpetual loop of recommendations. As a result, this has left us confined to restrictive patterns of consumption so tailed around our ‘data self’ that it becomes almost impossible to escape from. Big data and algorithms are deeply ingrained in how we consume culture, but as we’ve seen with the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, their presence is being widely felt not just in the cultural, but also the social and political realms too.