Netflix and the Attention Economy

Netflix is controlling your mind.
By  · Published on June 11th, 2017

Netflix is controlling your mind.

That’s a provocative sentence designed to get you to keep reading and find out what the hell I might be on about. Our world, it should come as no surprise, is full of these subtle attention grabs – attempts, noble and ignoble, to attract your eyeballs and hold onto them for as long as possible. None of this is new; the web has merely amplified and ramified what billboards and fluorescent signs have done for decades. But public consciousness of this so-called “attention economy” has grown in recent months, due both to its insidious effect on the recent election and its increasing consequences on our own minds. As design ethicist Tristan Harris recently explained on Real Time with Bill Maher, many of us spend the majority of our waking hours inside this “attention city,” the design of which we have little say over.

We don’t tend to think of Netflix in these terms – at least not the way we think of notoriously habit-forming platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. But the finite number of hours in the day inevitably creates a scarcity that pits every attention-based service against all the others.  Not even basic bodily needs are immune: as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings quipped in April, “We’re competing with sleep, on the margin.” That’s why addictive features like YouTube’s auto-play and Facebook’s bottomless feed have found their way into the Netflix app, and why you’ve likely stayed up several bleary-eyed hours longer than intended watching Netflix recently.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re reading this site, you probably believe, as I do, that at least some of the time one spends watching movies and TV is intrinsically well-spent. Enjoying a truly great film or TV show can be among life’s greatest pleasures; we need not regret it the way we regret an hour lost to scrolling through a newsfeed. Add to that the fact that films have the capacity to increase empathy, broaden horizons, and inspire social change, and Netflix would seem to be performing a colossal public service.

However, the same could be said of at least some of the interactions one has on social media. Indeed, this is the argument one often hears in Silicon Valley: the technology is neutral, and people are free to use it for good or ill. But when these companies deploy algorithms and design choices aimed at maximizing time-on-site, the structure of the incentives shifts – and not for the better. On social media, articles spread not based on the quality of the information they contain but the quantity of outrage they generate. Apps are rewarded not for the benefits they provide but the addictions they form in their users.

Is Netflix headed in this direction? It’s difficult to say. The subscription-based model guards against some of the excesses that an ad-driven model inspires. And given Netflix’s desire to differentiate itself from a service like YouTube, the incentive to produce and distribute prestigious, high-quality content will likely endure. What’s more, Netflix is not trying to intrude upon the hours in the workday – at least not yet. Generally, when one settles in to use the service, it is not because one has been accidentally distracted.

Still, there is no avoiding the power of incentives. As I wrote about some months ago, Netflix recently transitioned its ratings from a star-based system to a thumbs-up/thumbs-down one. The switch came after they discovered that there was less correlation than one might hope between the films people rated most highly and the ones they tended to watch. This made the recommendation algorithm ineffective with respect to the aim of maximizing time on site. If a mindless but readily watched bit of entertainment barely tips the scale from a thumbs-down to a thumbs-up, then Netflix is happy to put it in front of you – so long as it will keep you using. The downstream effect will be a recommendation engine that skews toward guilty pleasures, blockbusters, and background noise.

Perhaps I’m beginning to sound like a paternalistic, eat-your-vegetables elitist. After all, why shouldn’t Netflix give the proverbial people what they want? Or, as the filmmaker Scott Derrickson put it on Twitter, “like the art you like, not the art you want to like.” Let me be clear: the boundary between high and low brow cinema, at least as it’s popularly understood, is neither clear nor especially consequential. If Ingmar Bergman leaves you cold but Transformers 4 makes your heart sing, then I think Netflix should recommend you Transformers 1, 2, 3, and 5. The distinction I do care about is the one between hours one is glad to have spent and hours one regrets. It is this distinction that the endless feeds of Facebook and Twitter trample upon, and that I fear Netflix will soon lose sight of.

A final point: you might be wondering how Netflix, in its loyalty to the profit-motive, is any different from theatrical distribution, or indeed the film business at large. Aren’t all films part of the attention economy? One could certainly make this argument. One could even go so far as to say that the craft of storytelling is itself an elaborate mechanism for gaining and sustaining attention. But in considering the vital distinction between time regretted and time well spent, Netflix presents a unique obstacle. The commitment required to go to the theater, or in bygone times to the video rental store, acts as a kind of buffer; it forces us to be reflective about whether the film in question is really worth the effort. In other words, it is the exact opposite of the mindless automaticity that Netflix’s features promote. Movie theaters are resigned to the fact that they will get, at best, 2-4 hours of the average person’s time per week, and so their interest is in ensuring that their films are worth it. For Netflix, the potential percentage of the attention pie is much larger, while the incentive to make any one viewing experience rewarding is significantly diminished.

The preceding should not — and I’m quite sure could not — dissuade you from continuing to use Netflix. However often film fans may rail against this or that infraction the company commits, Netflix is in so many ways a godsend, to cinephiles most of all. But it is worth reflecting, for both your own sake and the sake of film culture, whether what you watch there reflects what you’d like to see more of. And the next time an auto-play countdown threatens to deprive you of another hour’s sleep, turn it off. Get some rest. Netflix isn’t going anywhere.

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Writer, filmmaker.