“I went to bed at 11 pm, then woke up at 1 am to watch the episode. At 3 am my head hurt like hell but I was so excited I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
These words came from a young woman sitting next to me in a restaurant where we were both having lunch. As she proceeded to share updates on her favourite show with her friend and I tried to go back to my book, a thought wouldn’t leave my mind:
Congratulations Reed Hastings, you won.
Hastings is the CEO and cofounder of Netflix, and he has famously stated that his main competitor is sleep and the “broad range of things that people do to relax, unwind, hang out and connect.” If the above conversation is any indication of his progress, I would argue that the equally broad range of things that people do to make a living are standing next in line to be defeated, as it is highly unlikely that someone who probably got no more than 2–5 hours of solid sleep will be able to stay productively at her desk for 8 straight hours the next day.
Don’t get me wrong, I am part of Netflix’s reported 148M paid members. I enjoy watching their content as much as any other person (I have even written about one of its shows). But when my sleep becomes the rival of a billion-dollar company, I will try, as fiercely as I can, to protect it. That means keeping an eye on the always evolving set of techniques used to hold my attention and, consequently, my time. Or, in the company’s point of view, “to maximize member satisfaction and retention”.
So, here’s what I’ve noticed through observation and found out through research:
1. Autoplay and mindless decision-making
When you sign in to your Netflix profile, without as much as a single scroll down, a trailer is automatically set to play. Then, if you select an episode or a movie, maybe expecting to find out more about it, the video will autoplay immediately. Plus, if you finish watching a show’s episode and stare at the screen for a few seconds, the following episode on the list will start playing. These seemingly convenient features are actually put in place to numb your ability to make a conscious decision.
The same principle is behind endless feeds on social media, and it is based on the results of an experience conducted in 2005*. According to the research protocol, one group of participants was invited to eat soup from a regular bowl, while another group ate the exact same kind of soup, but from a “bottomless bowl” (without them noticing, the experimenter was slowly refilling their bowl with more soup). As it turned out, the second group ended up eating about 70% more soup.
If your “content bowl” is constantly being replenished with new videos, photos or songs without your awareness, you will probably keep mindlessly watching, scrolling or listening without a single pause to think and decide if this is really how you want to spend your time.
2. Announcements and social anxiety
While I was considering whether to start watching a new show recently, I noticed an announcement on the show’s page:
It’s official: Another season is coming.
In the beginning I didn’t make much of it. After all, I wasn’t sure if the show was any good, so I couldn’t care less about forthcoming seasons. As I got hooked into the show, I started to feel excited about the fact that I would be able to keep watching it in the future. But then, as the season was reaching its end, I started to feel anxious: When was this damn new season starting? How would I know if it had already begun? What if I forgot about it?
This is the result of my mind being played to feel what Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, calls FOMSI, or the Fear of Missing Something Important. It’s what keeps you coming back to your social media apps — you don’t want to risk missing a story from a friend, an update from a company, or some piece of news, and tech companies capitalize on that form of social anxiety.
3. Comprehensive menu and illusion of control
A few days ago, over dinner with friends, my husband mentioned a three-part documentary we were watching. Our friends seemed eager to know more, until one of them asked: “Is it on Netflix?” Upon hearing the answer (“No”), curiosity immediately turned into a lack of interest.
As I later reflected on this mood transition, I wondered how the generation who grew up without cable TV and used to complain about only having four channels to choose from now seems perfectly happy with a single provider. The answer may lie in an illusory perception of control.
Netflix’s offer is vast and varied, so we tend to trust that it will fulfill our every need for content. And there’s so much to choose from that we feel we have the power to decide. But, as Tristan Harris puts it, “The most empowering menu is different than the menu that has the most choices”. Having a lot of different titles to choose from doesn’t mean you’re in charge. It means you are constrained to select an option from the list you are presented with. As any foodie will tell you, having 50+ different plates in a restaurant’s menu does not mean that you will eat better.
While we’re on the topic of perceived control, let me just challenge you further with another inspiring quote by Reed Hastings:
“Binge-watching is great because it puts you in control.”
4. Algorithmical personalization and conditioned choices
While exploring new content categories, you might notice that the titles you haven’t watched yet are tagged with a percentage representing the likelihood that they will match your profile of interests, based on your watching history. This is just an example of Netflix’s tailor-made recommendations, but their level of customization goes way beyond:
“At Netflix, we embrace personalization and algorithmically adapt many aspects of our member experience, including the rows we select for the homepage, the titles we select for those rows, the galleries we display, the messages we send, and so forth.”
As deeply explained in their tech blog, Netflix goes to great lengths to persuade you to watch their content. Their experiences go so far as to using different imagery to present the same movie to different users: “A member who watches many movies featuring Uma Thurman would likely respond positively to the artwork for Pulp Fiction that contains Uma. Meanwhile, a fan of John Travolta may be more interested in watching Pulp Fiction if the artwork features John.”
The next time you’re musing over a new title, reflect on what drew your attention to it: Was it the action scene depicted? A frequently watched genre? A familiar face? It might not be a coincidence.
“We wouldn’t let other people walk off with our material possessions, but when it comes to minutes, hours — even days — it’s a different matter.”**
In his book The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu explains that there are two ways of converting attention into cash: the oldest one is to charge admission, as when you pay to see a concert or read a book, and the most recent one is to resell the attention gained — hence the much repeated motto, when referring to social media giants, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product”.
This is where Netflix’s mode of operation can become confusing, because members pay for access, so the main goal should be to make the sale. However, because its business model is subscription-based, there’s a vested interest in keeping you coming back for more. But that is also where your power lies: every single day, you get to choose where to invest your time (and money). To remain mindful of what lies behind that choice might be the single most important decision you make, day in and day out.
“Over the coming century, the most vital human resource in need of conservation and protection is likely to be our own consciousness and mental space.” — Tim Wu
*Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & North, J. (2005). Bottomless bowls: Why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Obesity Research, 13(1), 93–100.
**How much time do I have left?, New Philosopher, #22: Time