Filmgoing on the Internet: Netflix & the Cult of Individualism

//Philip Conklin

The postmodernist penchant for encouraging the formation of market niches — in both consumer habits and cultural forms — surrounds the contemporary urban experience with an aura of freedom of choice, provided you have the money. Shopping malls, multiplexes and box stores proliferate, as do fast-food and artisanal market-places. We now have, as urban sociologist Sharon Zukin puts it, ‘pacification by cappuccino.’
— David Harvey, "The Right to the City," New Left Review 53, 2008.
What Does Your Favorite Emoji Actually Say About You?
© 2014 Aaron Rappaport, "Multiples"

© 2014 Aaron Rappaport, "Multiples"

If there were one characteristic that could be said to typify the Internet, it’s a profusion of information. For anyone with an Internet connection, all information is available for instant access at all times. Because of the vastness and ubiquity of this information, a whole Internet subculture has arisen around the desire to individualize and define the user experience; as the ever-growing sea of content on the web makes each individual contribution to it a smaller, more meaningless fraction, users strive to differentiate themselves, to carve out a unique and clearly defined identity, to make the Internet their Internet.

The most obvious examples of this are social media websites like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram, which provide users with a platform through which to present themselves — or at least the image of themselves that they wish to be — to the world at large. (I would also argue that, despite the moniker, these sites are less a way to socialize with others than a method for self-promotion.) Recently, I’ve also been struck by the proliferation of online quizzes on sites like Buzzfeed, quizzes such as “Which ‘Hannibal’ Character Are You?”, “Which ‘90s Game Show Are You?”, “What Should You Nickname Your Man’s Penis?”, and “Which Bodily Function Are You?” (I made the last one up, but you get the idea). These quizzes appear trivial on the surface, but they highlight a larger implication of our culture in the Internet age; in the face of rapidly expanding access to information, it becomes necessary both to differentiate yourself from the information, and to define yourself through that information.

In this culture of Internet individualization, online filmgoing is of particular interest. The way we watch movies, and the significance of those movies, is profoundly changed when we watch them online. The most popular online streaming website, Netflix, is perhaps the prime example of this phenomenon. With its personalization software and dedication to reinforcing the tastes of the individual user, Netflix promotes an essentially solipsistic approach to movie watching.

First, a disclaimer. I understand that everyone uses Netflix differently, and that those uses are most likely not directly aligned with Netflix’s intended use. What I’m concerned with here is outlining a general theory of Netflix. And while your individual use of Netflix may not align with the ideal use of Netflix, each user’s experience is marked, however subtly, by the model of intense individualism that colors every aspect of the website.

Visiting the Netflix homepage, you’re presented with what appears to be a website that was made especially for you. And in a sense, it was. In fact, you can’t access Netflix unless you have an account (the only page you can visit without one is a page that asks you to create an account), and from there on, your Netflix homepage is based on your account information, your viewing history, your ratings, and other factors. The result is that the Netflix homepage is, theoretically, unique to each individual user.

This is a pretty basic premise, but the Netflix model of individualism goes far beyond this, infiltrating nearly every aspect of the website. The Netflix homepage is made up of a series of lists of movies and TV shows under various headings. The first movie or show pictured on the homepage is the last one you watched, under the heading “Recently Watched.” Next to that is “My List,” which is all the movies and shows that you’ve selected to watch in the future. The next row down is, in my case, “Top Picks for Philip,” and presents a selection of movies and shows that Netflix thinks you’ll like, based on your ratings, viewing activity, and the movie’s popularity among other viewers. Following this, the suggestions seem to become more general. After “Popular on Netflix,” the categories refer to broad genres, like “TV Shows,” “Critically Acclaimed Movies,” “New Releases,” “TV Comedies,” “Documentaries,” etc. Though they appear to be universal, these categories are also based on your user activity. If you watch a lot of TV dramas, Netflix will suggest that category, and within the category will be shows that are similar to other shows that you’ve watched or favorably rated on Netflix. Indeed, beneath some of these categories is the subheading “Based on your interest in … ” and an image of two movies or TV shows you’ve either watched or added to your “List.” Further, some of these categories are titled “Because you watched (insert name of TV show or movie)” and list films and shows similar to one you already watched on Netflix.

Everywhere you turn on the website, Netflix asks you to help them make their suggestions better, to refine their algorithm to the point that your tastes are perfectly synced with their software. After you’ve watched something, a banner appears on the homepage asking you to rate it and select how often you watch, for example, Cerebral Independent Dramas (Often? Sometimes? Never?), and suggests a few similar movies, which you can either rate or add to your List. “The more you rate, the better your suggestions!” A whole section of the website is devoted to your “Taste Profile,” where you can rate movies and shows that you’ve seen, access and change previous reviews and ratings, and adjust your genre and “Mood” preferences. Finally, what I find the most interesting and telling part about all this, is the Netflix star system. Each movie or show description includes a basic summary, the director and stars, sometimes a few “based on your interest in” justifications, and a star rating. But rather than an average of user ratings, which is what you’d expect, the Netflix star rating is “Our Best Guess for Philip.” Only by accessing the movie’s individual page can you see an “average user rating,” which is still far less prominent than their best-guess-for-you rating. Not only does Netflix suggest what you might like to watch, they’ve gone so far as to predict how much you will like it.

Of course, this is the whole point. Catering to the individual is the basis of the Netflix business model, and, based on their success, it’s probably a very good one. I’m sure Netflix has teams of developers working to improve and invent software to make the algorithm more accurate, to better guess your rating, to make their suggestions better. But this model has other effects apart from attracting new users and improving stock value, effects that change the way we experience movies.

As I’ve discussed, Netflix operates on a system whereby the whole experience is catered to the tastes of the individual. In this context, a utopian Netflix experience would be one in which every suggestion is a movie you would enjoy, every suggested rating matches yours, and you are never presented with a movie that you’ll dislike. The system is not meant to challenge you to try something new, only to lull you into reassurance, to shut out everything you may not like, to only present things that will be agreeable to you; your tastes are only broadened insofar as you discover more films that are just like ones you already like. These films are then rated, processed by the algorithm, and used to determine some other films that are like them, further reinforcing your tastes.

In other words, the process of ratings and suggestions on Netflix does not entail an expansion or cultivation of knowledge, but a detailed mapping of your pre-existing preferences and ideas. Netflix wants to get to know which movies you like and don’t like, what genres you like and how often you want to watch movies in those genres, how often you watch TV shows compared to movies, on which devices you watch them; it wants to know everything about your preferences, and come to know so much that it can even predict your preferences, using its vast knowledge to present you with things you never knew you liked. On visiting Netflix, you should experience a wave of reassurance, knowing that everything you see is exactly what you want to see. In this sense, the real mission of Netflix is to reflect back a perfect image of you, to be a better reflection of you than you are yourself. And it’s well equipped to do so; not only does it have more information about movies than you ever will, but it remembers precisely what you watched, when you watched it, and how much you liked it.

All of this not only changes your experience using Netflix, but changes what a film is online. In general, on the Internet, a film is not a work of art to be appreciated for its aesthetic merit, but a commodity to be absorbed into one’s knowledge base, to increase one’s cultural capital. It’s significance as an entity itself diminishes, and it becomes a part of you, a signifier of who you are and what you know. This complex of assimilation is all over the Internet. Consider Facebook, where users list their favorite movies, books, and music to delineate their personality; where every song someone listens to on Spotify, or every movie they watch on Netflix, is published on their feed; where every restaurant a person visits is marked by the time they were there and the people they were with. Or consider the character of online forum discussions in general, in which, armed with more knowledge than ever, users are embattled in a postmodern game of one-upmanship, trying to prove how much they know, to find the detail that everyone else has missed, in order to more authoritatively evaluate a thing. Obviously, this has been going on for much longer than the Internet has been around, but it’s unmistakable the extent to which the Internet has nurtured and provided outlet for this impulse.

And where your own knowledge fails to provide clear signifiers of your identity, the Internet is there to fill in with affirmations of uniqueness (“23 things only left-handed people will understand”), buying decisions (“People who bought this also bought…”), "Who to follow," “What’s happening now, tailored for you,” "Suggestions based on ... ," your own personal commercials ("Is this ad relevant to you?"), friendships ("People you may know"), and on and on. It’s a world that revolves around you, in which media, friends, and followers are assimilated into your profile, where you decide who gives you your news and what is sold to you, and where you only have to reckon with what you like.

So where does this leave us with movies? First of all, in this solipsistic model there’s no room for a collective experience. On the Internet, and Netflix in particular, where all your tastes are known, classified, and systematized, you are essentially recommending films to yourself, and your interaction with the film beyond your viewing of consists of using it to further hone and delineate your tastes and personality on Netflix or some social media platform. The only person necessary for the transaction is you. This is in utter opposition to the history of filmgoing; in the '30s and '40s, the cinema grew to intense populism as movie theaters became the most popular form of entertainment in the U.S. Everyone saw the same movies, which became a part of the public consciousness. After television usurped the populist mantle from movie theaters, cinema experienced a rebirth in the '60s and '70’s through an explosion of art-house theaters, cine clubs, and film magazines. A whole culture of cinephilia erupted — people could now see foreign films, and, as the studio system broke down, independent films began to be made and shown. This culture allowed people to see new and different kinds of films, and forums through which to share and discuss them.

Though more movies are available to watch and discuss than ever, the Internet has precluded the need for collectivism. Sure, you could watch a restored 1929 Erich Von Stroheim film right now and discuss it with somebody in Brazil — I’m sure many people do things like this everyday — but it is no longer necessary to interact with anybody other than yourself.

This also brings up a paradoxical point about the issue of choice in Internet filmgoing. On the one hand, your pool of choices has vastly increased because there are so many more films available to watch instantly than ever. On the other hand, Netflix restricts your choice because it basically presents you with movies that already match your tastes. So this model, which on the surface allows you utter freedom of choice, is, in a way, more restrictive than traditional moviegoing, where you have to pick one of five to ten films that have nothing to do with your taste preferences and viewing history.

What I think is most detrimental about this model is that, in simply stroking your taste preferences just how you like it, a whole array of films is left out of the equation entirely, films that could end up being a whole lot more enjoyable and beneficial than something you already know you’re going to like. What about a film that you may not like, but one that presents an interesting and unique worldview, that questions how you think about the world or the movies? Where is that place for that in this model? I find that I’m most engaged with a film when I’m baffled, when a film poses more questions than answers; the films that have stuck with me the most are those that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, that are bewildering and utterly unique. If we abandon our commitment to second-by-second satisfaction, we open ourselves up to a panoply of films that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

Of course, all of this is part of a larger societal movement. For the past 30 years or so, the American political landscape has been dominated by neoliberal economic and social policies — the deregulation of financial markets, privatization of social services, and free trade. In this system, the state’s concern is not with the welfare of its citizens, but with the utter liberation and autonomy of the market. Everything is a commodity, and the free market reigns over all else. Therefore, the individual is not so much a citizen with rights and social protections, but an actor in the market with the power to choose which commodities he or she will purchase. This situates freedom solely as the freedom to choose between different products — healthcare, education, clothes, lattes, movies on Netflix. The choices we make, therefore, define who we are.

But what is the nature of these choices? What do the choices you make mean? In a 2004 interview, Slavoj Zizek gives a partial answer to these questions:

They are trying as directly as possible to sell you experiences, i.e. [sic] what you are able to do with the car, not the car as a product itself. An extreme example of this is this existing economic marketing concept, which basically evaluates the value of you as a potential consumer of your own life. Like how much are you worth, in the sense of all you will spend to buy back your own life as a certain quality of life. You will spend so much in doctors, so much in beauty, so much in transcendental meditation, so much for music, and so on. What you are buying is a certain image and practice of your life.

But even as the choices we make become more and more essential to who we are, and even as the variety and number of options to choose from exponentially increases, each choice you make is, in essence, a reinforcing of the importance of the freedom to choose. Amidst this apparent array of choices, we’re missing the larger choice we are making, which is the choice to continue living in our late-capitalist, consumerist society in which everything is oriented as a product, and you must purchase your own welfare from society. Missing from this structure is true dissent, revolution rather than reform, the right to choose from anything other than the presented options. Because we are continually making choices, the broader issue becomes invisible. Just as our apparently endless online movie watching choices are actually restricted by our established preferences, our choices in the greater consumer society hide the fact that we’re continually reinforcing the choice to continue making the same choices over and over. As Zizek famously said, “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.”

In his 2008 article “The Right To the City,” David Harvey writes, “This is a world in which the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism, and its cognate of political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialization.” We can see that this possessive individualism also marks a majority of Internet culture, and filmgoing on the Internet in particular. With the exception of MUBI — an online cinema that programs a continuous series of films — the trend in online filmgoing is toward the solipsistic self-satisfaction of the individual. In this model, the only progress we can hope for is a reinforcement of already existing tastes and reassurance that we’ll keep seeing more of the same. I hope for an online cinema that favors discovery over pacification, engagement over immediate gratification, the collective over the individual.

//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.


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