The politics of Netflix: The illusion of agency within a scripted space
By Stefani Mans
Netflix wants to double their offering of Netflix originals – series that are produced by the popular Streaming Video On Demand (SVOD) company – in 2017, a news article on NU.nl reported on December 5th. The company wants to offer their subscribers more than a thousand hours of original content; “..and that’s just a careful estimation” says Netflix’ head of content Ted Sarando (NU.nl). Netflix has proven really successful at using their metadata centric interface to make inferences about what people would like to see, and produce original content accordingly.
A primary example of a successful Netflix original is their immensely popular show House of Cards. The entire production of the series and prediction of its success relied on Netflix’s algorithm. Normally companies run a pilot to test how a show is going to be received by the public. Netflix didn’t feel the need to run a pilot, because they already new their series was going to be a success based on the analysis of their gathered data.
The success of House of Cards proves that an interface can do much more than just connect the user to the content.In his article “Scripted Spaces: Television Interfaces and the Non-Places of Asynchronous Entertainment”, Chamberlain argues that interfaces are not just static functional non-places that connect users to content, but are instead more complex interactive scripted spaces that intend to encourage specific actions of users that visit the scripted space. In my analysis I will explain how Netflix let’s its interface and the narrative form of their original content work together to produce a user experience that foregrounds interactivity to evoke a strong sense of agency in the users, making them less critical and open to suggestion and manipulation, and encourages them to binge watch this content.
As discussed in this context, the interface is the intermediary between users and media content. “It gives the users the means to find content in the first place and generally gives the users a sense of control”. With technology ever advancing, and interactive screens – computers, tablets, smartphones – becoming more available in numbers, and better in quality. users have become “accustomed to looking at screens for content” . Users navigate these virtual spaces by “navigating menus, following links, registering, listing preferences and program searches”.
While many types of explanations of the term user experience – or, ‘UX’ in short – exist, I will use a less philosophical version, meant for research of human-computer interactions.“UX is viewed as a consequence of a user’s internal state (predispositions, expectations, needs, motivation, mood, etc.), the characteristics of the designed system (e.g., complexity, purpose, usability, functionality, etc.) and the context (or the environment) within which the interaction occurs” . In this way, we use it to magnify subjective experiences that users have with the content in question, but also about the ease of use, the feeling that interacting with the media object instils in the user, “does not just concern the product or service, but “interactions with the company”, about the way it looks and is remembered” .
Mark Auge developed the term ‘non-places’ that Chamberlain repurposes. Auge points out that: ”on the one hand, the term refers to spaces of transport / transit / commerce / leisure that are in-between places; on the other, it refers to the relations, primarily anonymous, that people have in these spaces”. Chamberlain, in turn, argues that media interfaces undeservedly appear to have become the non-places of television. These interfaces tend to present themselves as merely functional intermediaries between users and content, in order to hide more complex operations that are happening beneath the surface, he argues that they hide: “the complex functioning of code and networks that ultimately control what shows up on the screen, as well as those entities that influence the code and networks” .
Interactive scripted spaces
Chamberlain perceives media interfaces as scripted spaces, rather than non-places: ”a scripted space is one in which planners have gone to great lengths to design an environment that generates an expected reaction from visitors to the space” .
He refers to Klein, who argues that scripted spaces aim to give users a strong sense of agency within an environment that is highly calibrated: “a form of predestination, where the consumer ‘acts out’ the illusion of free will”. According to Klein, above all, scripted spaces revolve around the complex relationship between the programmers, the programmed script, and the consumers that engage with that script. Klein is of the opinion that consumers do not have a lot of political power within this dynamic. The possibilities and choices that are presented to us by television interfaces are often a reflection of the priorities of the entities behind the interface. But the options are presented to us as to be resulting directly from our stated and inferred preferences thereby emphasising the control, free choice and agency of the user.
Interactivity is important to create a sense of agency. This sense of agency reduces criticism and makes users feel like they are a part of the process; like “they are in on it”, so that they feel at ease with the commodification of their user interactions. In the following analysis I will explain how the narrative complexity of the Netflix original show House of Cards, and the Netflix interface work together to create a specific UX that foregrounds a feeling of interactivity and thereby agency. This encourages a preferred reading – binge watching – to generate an expected reaction from visitors of the scripted space. In an interview with The Huffington Post, creator Beau Willimon confirms that “while all of our episodes certainly do have their own beginning and their own end, it really is meant to be watched serially”.
The implied and preferred reading: binge watching
So, how does Netflix’ interface encourage binge watching using temporality in the storyline, in combination with the use of time-based interactions in the interface?
Within the trend of complex television, non-traditional festations of narrative temporality are an important feature according to Paul Booth. Between each episode of House of Cards, story gaps are created. Because the narrative only supplies little information as to what happened in the meantime, and how much time has passed since the last episode, the viewer must really pay close attention to negotiate the provided information and fill in the gaps. The longer the user waits before watching the next episode the more difficult it will be to make sense when catching up.
House of Cards also creates a playful interaction between real-world time and story time. The narrative of each season begins close to its actual release date and then accelerates the passage of time. For the user this creates a sense of time travel into the future and puts emphasises on the temporal nature of binging. This accelerated passage of time is even more emphasised by the speedy rate at which the characters bodies and appearances change.
Simultaneous release model
To start off, House of Cards was the first serie that followed the simultaneous release model, this entails that all the episodes of a season are released at the same time, allowing the user to watch a whole season in one weekend or even one session if they would prefer to do so. This would create the effect of watching a thirteen hour movie instead of a serie which consists of different episodes. Placing House of Cards in the same category as movies can signify its preferred reading as a movie, and movies are generally consumed in full – from start to finish.
Another form feature that aids the binge watching experience is paratextual framing. Netflix interface presents the different episodes as ‘chapters’ without distinct names. The chapter count continues throughout the seasons, with no regard for the boundaries that a season normally has (Season 2, for example, starts with chapter 14). This creates continuity across seasons, and strengthens the feeling that one should binge watch the series. As the general preferred reading of books is linear, ascending in chapter count, a correlation between the series and books might invoke the same kind of reading when consuming House of Cards.
The interface: temporal elements
Netflix makes sure that minimal user interaction is needed to continue to binge watch by defaulting to an autoplay structure. After the user finishes watching an episode, an automatic timer appears: “Next episode will start in 10… 9… 8…” This automatically pushes the user into watching the next episode; an action from the user is required to stop the incoming flow of content. Visual elements on the home screen also contribute to the suggestion of binge watching. The strip of programmes located at the very top of the list of options suggests we “Continue watching…” the items listed there.
The final major temporal element in the interface is the “Are you still watching?” message that appears after an ‘x’ number of hours of continuous playback without any active interaction from the user. One could argue this serves as a friendly reminder from Netflix to think about personal health and to subtly note the passage of time in ‘the real world’. However, since part of the success of the Netflix algorithm relies on data that visualises where and when users start, pause, or stop binging altogether in any episode or film, it can also be an interaction that Netflix invokes in order to protect the integrity of their gathered data.
Breaking the 4th wall
One of the important tactics that is used to amplify House of Cards’ bingeability is the personal relationship that protagonist Frank Underwood establishes with the user. From the very first episode on Frank directly addresses the viewer, talking straight into the camera while verbalising his thoughts, motivations and intentions. As if “we are video conferencing with a narrative or in particular with Frank himself”.
This technique is also called a Shakespearean aside and in this case gives the users insight in Frank’s manipulative plans, which creates a feeling of participation; the feeling that, together with his wife Claire, they are his only partners in crime. As a result of this structural choice, the narrative encourages binge watching as a way for the users to sustain their personal relationship with with protagonist Frank underwood. However, the user’s engagement with protagonist Frank Underwood also evokes a sense of alienation. While letting the users in on his thoughts, emotions, intentions and motivations, he still gives of the feeling that he is manipulating them the same way that they see him manipulate the other characters.
This tactic can actually be seen as a form of self disclosure and self reflexivity, but can also be another way to reduce critical thinking and soften the critics and enhance the user’s feeling of agency and control by this transparency: ”Franks playing the audience ironically reflects on the workings of Netflix production”. The visual feedback of the algorithm learning about the user is fed back to him through designed elements in the interface. The film technique tries to visually establish that the content and interface are in conversation with the user; as if the interface listens to the user, and gives the feeling the user is “in on it”. The correlation between these different ways of addressing users could make the interface feel like a ‘partner in crime’.
Metadata & interface aesthetics
In order to provide its users an interactive personalised user experience, Netflix must have knowledge of their interests and desires. This knowledge is acquired via the metadata they gather through use of their interface. The Netflix interface subsequently ‘breaks the 4th wall’, adjusting the content to fit the user’s profile. It draws the user’s attention to this process visually through design elements and navigational elements leading to related screens and content.
An example of this is the ‘Because you’ve watched…’ section below a recommended film or series. Another is the ‘Recommended for you’ selection of series and films on the home screen. This ‘breaks the 4th wall’, as the series does when the main character directly addresses the viewer. Fig 2. The Netflix TV interface in November 2013. Concurrent with House of Cards, Season 1.
Based on this, Chamberlain argues that media interfaces have an aesthetic of metadata which changes the way in which users find and select television. The Netflix interface and the visual feedback to the user that displays its use of metadata, gives the sense of being able to look at Netflix’ inner workings, instilling a heightened sense of agency in the user while also informing them about the content.
Chamberlain argues that the phenomenological experience of media interfaces is secured by the use of implicitly interactive design elements within a meticulously designed experience. Netflix emphasises the user’s relation to the interface by drawing attention to elements that reflect customisation and interactivity like personalised queues and suggestions. He further points out that the effect of interactivity at the interface plays a key role in the experience of emergent media technologies: “In essence the experiential modality of the media interface is about choice and personalisation, expressed through interaction with the interface itself”.
Power, control and surveillance
As we speak of the programmer’s intent, and the user’s supposed understanding of the system the programmer has designed, we can see a correlation between this ecosystem and the more traditional concept of hegemony, where the ruling class diverts some power to the lower class, in order to maintain its position of power. This is consistent with the process of convincing users to participate in the commodifications of their user interactions with the interface in exchange for a better more interactive and personalised UX. Chamberlain argues “that media interfaces exemplify how control operates in a networked age”. This also ties in with Deleuze’s concept of the society of control: “in the society of control power is exerted through information systems and networks of communication.
Deleuze argues that this society is characterised by free-floating systems of control that are continuous and without limits” (Mans, “Gotta Track ‘em All!” 3). “The corporation uses these continuous systems, and the sense of freedom and agency to construct user profiles, using controlled mobility to steer users in directions that are profitable for the corporation“.
Netflix originals & scripted spaces
Netflix has always used data to find out which shows to license, even examining torrent websites to find out which shows are the most popular at being pirated. A $100 million dollar investment in developing the first 2 seasons of a series seems like a big leap of faith nonetheless. In his article “Giving Viewers What They Want”, David Carr quotes Jonathan Friedland, Netflix’ chief communications officer, to shed some light on the decision making. Friedland explains that their direct relationship with consumers lets them “know what people like to watch”, and provides insights in the potential interest for a given show. “It gave us some confidence that we could find an audience for a show like House of Cards”.
The second layer of information
The confidence that Friedland describes is backed up by the fact that Netflix used the same data it used to commission production of House of Cards to ultimately promote it. According to Carr, there was not one trailer for House of Cards, but many different ones. These catered specifically to the interests of the users they were targeting: “Fans of Mr. Spacey saw trailers featuring him, women watching “Thelma and Louise” saw trailers featuring the show’s female characters and serious film buffs saw trailers that reflected Mr. Fincher’s touch”.
Chamberlain addresses this by referring to media interfaces like this as scripted spaces, areas that seem to reflect the user’s own interests and giving a peek at the inner workings of the system, but the interfaces are ultimately catering to the wants and needs of the corporation. He specifies that through the interactions of users – small data exchanges between individual and the corporation – users are on a clear path to “subject themselves to broader exchanges of social power”.
Seemingly harmless, and tiny and insignificant by itself, these very same minuscule exchanges of data expose them to broader exchanges of social power: the interactions and interests of an entire user base suddenly provide enough information to confidently make a $100 million dollar investment, suggesting a power balance that. However open a producer of content might seem to be about the intricacies of their service, there is always a layer of content, data, or other invisible workings that the user knows nothing or little about.
The initial premise of the Netflix service is that collected metadata is solely being used to increasingly improving the quality of their viewing experience. By examining and recognizing the seemingly deceptive qualities of the interface and the way our information is used, we can understand how contemporary corporations give us an illusion of agency, and imply that we ‘in on it’ – that we understand the ways in which the corporation supposedly operates; Media interfaces tend to present themselves as non-places; neutral spaces that enable users to interact with content. These interfaces are, however, more like scripted spaces; an ecosystem where the user must navigate through an interface designed with the intent of its programmers in mind. The interface is calibrated to generate an expected reaction from the user, but reflects some of its inner workings, to give the idea the user acts out of free will.
The interactive UX that evokes a feeling of agency within the user, and helps encourage binge watching. By design, It also generates an expected reaction from visitors of the scripted space; this expected behavior is created through an intricate combination of the narrative complexity of the Netflix original show House of Cards and the Netflix interface.Narrative temporality plays an important role in the promotion of binge watching. To blur the lines between episodes, the narrative of House of Cards plays with story gaps and the passage of time between scenes, leaving it unclear – from a more traditional televisual storytelling – where one episode ends and another begins.Netflix’ interface incorporates temporal elements and time-based interaction to further the user into binge watching their content – a preferred reading that is as seamless and continuous as possible.
Paratextual framing is used to portrait the series as content that belongs in high culture media outings. By releasing a full season of episodes all at once, as per their simultaneous release model, the series is presented more like a 13 hour movie than a series with interruptions. Similarly, the episodes do not have distinct names, but are numbered as an uninterrupted flow of chapters, giving the impression the series is also on par with books.The connotations this framing signifies, is the way movies and books are generally consumed; either everything in one go, or as a continuous story.
The future is now
As metadata is being used to generate content that is specifically designed to keep users engaged longer in an already successful interactive environment, however, it seems to no longer primarily be used to enhance the user experience. The sheer number of Netflix originals to come in the early future signifies an large scale focus on content production, and optimising the Netflix interface and Netflix original content to be as seamless and continuous as possible. Having to earn back the invested funds of the plethora of new original series, could result in the creation of a very biased algorithm. Perhaps the tongue-in-cheek references in the story about data being collected and used ‘in the user’s best interest’, and becoming victim to Frank’s scheming ways serve as a warning for what is to come.
Metadata can be used to offer a highly personalised UX and generate content that will keep users engaged longer. Streaming services are becoming increasingly more popular. By effectively using Big Data and data analytics, Netflix has positioned itself as the leader of the pack. However it does face competition. Will Amazon or Apple unseat Netflix from its throne? Time will tell, but the race to develop more accurate and insightful analytic strategies is on!
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