Philosopher Alain de Botton stated at the 2013 CDI (or the City of Ideas International Festival), that “the media is the teacher…once you’ve left school and university, or in other words for most of your life, you will not be educated in a classroom, but by the media.” The accompanying and profound implications of citing media as the ultimate signifier and shaper of society and identity has led me to diagnose the contemporary main driving model of media consumption – namely the on-demand binge culture subtitled the ‘Netflix Effect’ – and how this…new experiential frame of consumption in turn re-frames urban culture. The methodological significance of studying the currently dominant formats of mass consumption and popular media, in conjunction with its influence on cultural identity, is what I would argue a post-human integration of technically separate but intrinsically co-existing schools of cinema studies and cultural sociology: namely the cinematic city’s integration with the urban experience and Charles Taylor’s concept of the ‘social imaginary’.
To elaborate: researchers who attempt to understand the social forms of community, culture and the urban experience have a powerful resource in film: inhabitants inevitably become blind or are rendered unresponsive to the excessive sensual overload and intense imagery of the city, but they are offered an external eye with cinema, through which to focus their understanding of the city they live in. The audio-visual framework of film has a stimulating and evocative effect, which Tarkovsky defines as ‘an impression of the truth, a glimpse of the truth permitted to us in our blindness’ (1987, pg 106). Therefore, to quote what Demir had derived from Tarkovsky:
‘thinking about films is to think about society and the city; those who try to solve the puzzle of the city should look for clues on screen. All films either imply or explicitly articulate the hope and disappointment, struggle and deadlock, peace and conflict, harmony and contrast, solidarity and enmity of urban life. “Hence when we talk about film, we talk about society and vice versa”’ (2014, pg 3) (Diken and Laustesen, 2007, pg 13).
It is then an elegant connection to make, to consider the implications of Taylor’s ‘social imaginary’ in contextualise my research into the networked city, media and identity, since his ethos can be essentialised as: the social imaginary, or ‘the ways in which people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others’ (Taylor, 2002, pg 106), is formulated, represented and reproduced by a ‘circulation of images, representations, values and practices’ (Valaskivi, 2013, pg 486). The city IS a deluge of circulated images, presentations, values and practices, and through the cinematic frame, certain clarity can be achieved through brevity and narrative. In essence – the contemporary urban experience is mediated by the format of the screen, and with it being the driving force behind the contemporary human’s sense of self and identity, the newly popularised modes of consumption must therefore introduce new…signifiers and mediated instruments that reshape and recondition society’s individual and collective self. The ‘Netflix Effect’ should therefore be a natural extension point of exploration from what I’ve outlined so far regarding the cinematic city and the urban social imaginary. Indeed, the mechanisms behind the screen is just as important as what’s on the screen, when one considers media and culture. The rest of this essay will be focusing on the former, as I attempt to understand the quest of cultural engineering embarked on by Netflix.
The Digital Water Cooler
Matrix in her essay ‘The Netflix Effect: Teens, Binge Watching, and On-Demand Digital Media Trends’ (2014), identified two major patterns in how young audiences ages 18-34 (the dominant demographic with Netflix subscriptions) interact with the new media consumption landscape: ‘the rising importance of social TV viewing practices and new expectations about the availability of commercial-free, high-quality, and original television content’ (pg 120). This shift in consumer patterns of interaction with television is conditioned by Netflix and other over-the-top (OTT) streaming and video on demand services such as Amazon Prime and Hulu, by interface features as well as its content inventory: tens of thousands of on-demand TV shows and movies a click and swipe away, commercial-free viewing and Netflix’s ‘post play’ seamless episode delivery (when watching an episodic show, Netflix will auto-play the next episode, even skipping the opening and end credit sequences, unless the viewer physically intervenes by selecting the pause/exit option on their remote). Obviously, this resulted in viewers consuming more screen-based content, and in larger doses at a time. What changed as well, are the cultural mechanisms that surrounded media consumption.
There are those who argue, that the binge culture popularised by Netflix directly conflicts with the traditionally social affair that is the television; the ‘water-cooler factor’ of following weekly airings of sit-coms and laughing about it with co-workers the next day. As put by McNamara: “As more people turn to Netflix to catch up…the social element of television, that infamous water-cooler factor, is the first casualty” (2012). Of course, there is a debate to be had regarding the addictive effects on-demand streaming has on individuals, and how that may correlate with health risks of obesity and mental isolation. But regarding the argument that on-demand streaming destroys the social aspect of television, significant dialogue and arguments exists to counter its validity. According to Netflix producer Beau Willimon, the loss of appointment or weekly viewing does not impact negatively, reduce, or “lessen the community [that forms around shows] at all…these community find each other” online (Goldstein, 2014). Gillan supports this argument, stating that “simultaneity is no longer necessary in order to participate in a community around a TV show…viewers do not need to watch a series in its broadcast time slot to stay up to date on the latest development – story arcs, production decisions, and cast and network news. All of that information is just a click or text message away.” (2010, pg 15)
Viewers; especially young Generation Y students, follow TV shows with at least a partial desire to maintain a sense of social connection with their cohort, to secure their positions within social groups defined in large part by their members’ shared cultural competencies (Tryon, Dawson, 2013, pg 224). As suggested by McNamara earlier: television’s function being to generate forms of societal involvement and cultural citizenship is not new, but the Netflix Effect is involved in its evolution within the new era of media consumption, rather than being responsible for its demise. Even with the fragmentation of the audience across niche channels and widespread consumption of content within a time-shifted paradigm of on-demand spontaneity, viewers continue to benefit from opportunities for social belonging and mediated connectedness when they watch TV contemporaneously, often by binging, insofar as it affords them an opportunity to be part of the pop culture conversational flow, as it happens or soon after (Morabito, 2014).
To conclude, ‘choice’ and self-initiated ‘participation’ are actively part of the dialogue used by Netflix to justify its strategy of producing original content purposely for multi-episodic binging, and releasing entire seasons of a show at once being framed as a response to audience preferences, expectations and ‘new norms of viewer control’ (Neal, 2014). Matrix concluded her essay in a rather celebratory manner with the following: “…the Netflix generation enjoys a hyper-personalised yet socially connected media diet, with all the pleasures of on-demand spectatorship and participatory cultural citizenship, supported by new digital media networks, services and technologies” (pg 134). However, as I continue my interrogation of the Netflix Effect, I am interested in several constant key terms, namely ‘hyper-personalised’ and ‘viewer control’, and how they signal mirroring themes of Netflix’s media strategy beyond just the business of producing entertaining TV shows.
Algorithm and Agency
A popular sentiment associated with contemporary ‘new media’; defined broadly as forms of mediated text native to digital devices and interfaces (social media, the world wide web, virtual reality, etc) (Manovich, 2003, pp 13-25), is the evolving relationship between the consumer and media channels, and how consumers no longer ‘just consume’, but also actively generate their own media content. This is exemplified by Artz’s examination of Smythe’s ‘audience commodity’ concept. Smythe’s political economy of taking into account the ‘prosumer’s dualistic function in media as one that both consumes and produces, Artz argues, is relevant in the contemporary media landscape, as it contextualises audiences’ act of buying into subscriptions such as on-demand streaming and investing in devices such as smartphones, and how it commercialises their act of watching and engaging with media content (2008, pg 69). On the one hand, Artz’s contribution suggests that this new relationship does allow audiences to no longer be passive receivers, as the platform era of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have enabled them to be part of the production cycle as well; thus empowering them. But it does not address the reality that this content is still hosted on platforms and therefore commercialised by larger forces of capitalistic corporations. This is perfectly touched upon by Manzeolle, who recognises the role user-generated content (UGC) plays in the maintenance of digital platforms, and the implications this has on labour. The ubiquity of mobile devices has colonised everyday life, transforming communicative signals into digital labour (2010, pg 467).
Which brings me back to the Netflix Effect: just how in control are the platform users? If Netflix’s business lies in its ability to keep its viewership engaged with the content and commentating on it for as long as possible (encouraging more viewership in the process); thus colonising discourse and commercialising the viewership’s social engagement, isn’t it also in Netflix’s interest to hijack the audience’s interactions and engagement?
During 2013, journalist Alexis C. Madrigal used script automating software to determine just how many genres Netflix has compiled to categorise its mount of TV shows and movies for personalised recommendations, since he started noticing how…specific, they’ve gotten after a period of time streaming content on Netflix’s platform (“Emotional Fight-the-System Documentaries? Period Pieces About Royalty Based on Real Life? Foreign Satanic Stories from the 1980s?”) (Madrigal, 2014). As of publishing his findings the following year, Madrigal noted 76,897 ‘microgenres’ that spans Netflix’s library:
“Netflix has meticulously analysed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is unprecedented. The genres that I scraped and that we caricature…are just the surface manifestation of this deeper database…a database of American cinematic predilections. The data can’t tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making. When they create a show like House of Cards, they aren’t guessing at what people want.” (2014)
By choosing to watch certain shows/movies, using the search terms and measuring how often a viewer follows a certain show with their corresponding ‘microtags’, Netflix refreshes the recommendations list the next time the viewer logs in, taking into account the new data compiled by their usage.
Traditional television audience measurement was described by Ang (literally via. the title) as ‘desperately seeking the audience’: speculative, and unable to locate or identity outside sample groups (1991). This by-product of audience measurement organisations being unable to measure ‘actual audience’, Arnold offers, was audience agency, whereby media organisations could only pursue but never quite govern audience behaviour and attention (2016, pg 50). Giddens defines human agency as “concerning the events of which an individual is the perpetrator, in the sense that the individual could, at any phase in a given sequence of conduct, have acted differently.” Agency thus refers to the capacity to act (or not act) and this confers power, power here being “the capability to intervene in a given set of events so as in some ways to alter them” (1984, pp 7-9). In the era of Netflix however, new forms of measurement are enacted through datafication (as described by Madrigal). What’s interesting however, is that these new forms of data-mining is framed the same way as traditional audience measurement: producing a more enhanced means of personalising the viewing experience. “What you want, when you want it” (Netflix slogan utilised in 2013 promotional material).
By subjecting users to algorithmically generated digital identities inferred by a personalisation and recommendations system (PRS), Netflix effectively provokes and controls user behaviour through what Rouvroy refers to as an ‘algorithmic governmentality’ (2013). Through its PRS, Netflix predicts, determines interactions, and takes actions on behalf of (or away from) the user. And herein lies the paradox of Netflix’s ‘user choice’ brand identity: its PRS algorithms work to actively negate user choice; which Arnold argues discreetly infringes on human agency. The PRS commandeers choice so that the user will ‘not experience the burden of self-definition and autonomy. Netflix acts so that the user does not have to. Human agency here, is posited as an encumbrance, something best surrendered so that the user is not overwhelmed with uncertainty and, in the worst case, indecision’ (pg 59). It must therefore be noted as well: Hallinan and Striphas’ research shows that ‘[Netflix] users bypass the recommendations only 25% of the time’ (quoted by Arnold, pg 59). To conclude, there is something arguably insidious about this relationship between algorithm and the contemporary ‘burden’ of agency: perhaps it was inevitable for the digital consumer to be overwhelmed by choice, and even more so for them to seek out ways to ease that immobilising discomfort of indecision. The future promised by on-demand streaming sure at the very least, proved not be as rosy as the one presented by Matrix.
On-demand streaming and social media have ‘democratised’ content creation and consumption: consumers no longer ‘just consume’ but can create and consume at will. Indeed, there is another topic of exploration in how this new…format of mediated narrative translates into cinematic storytelling and how it addresses the eternal question of urban identity. After all: “when we talk about film, we talk about society and vice versa”. However, understanding where these narratives come to be and how they are presented via. their respective platforms are just as empathetic to the goal of diagnosing the ever-evolving cultural citizenry, how society relates to itself and the world, and how it reforms itself to a new reality.
This essay marks the accumulation of what I began in 2017 with my Ghost in the Shell essay, continuing onto 2018’s Terrace House piece and my Your Name/Cool Japan cross-reference study, all with a common theme of ‘Identity and Place’. Spending two years with these grand ideas in my head was certainly a trip; and one that has certainly rewired the way I approach television, cinema and video games.
I won’t say that I will be concluding my exploration of these ideas, but I do see myself winding down on writing material of this academic vein, so I can refocus the blog back on covering anime, as well as film and video game soundtracks. As for more long-form write-ups: I’ve got a couple in the pipeline right now, so readers will just have to be patient.
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