You’re sitting on the couch. You’re in front of whatever you use as a TV. You’re tired from a long week, a long day, from the rigors of modern society in general. You don’t want to move, you don’t want to think: All you want to do is be entertained with as little effort expelled as possible. Movie, dramatic miniseries, mindless sitcom—anything could satisfy this demand. You turn on Netflix.
First you flip through “New Releases,” moving on to “Top Picks for [You],” but having no luck you plunge deeper into the nooks, crannies and trenches of the streaming service, perusing “Critically Acclaimed Independent Dramas” or “Suspense Films with a Female Lead” or “Movies in which Michael Sheen Plays Tony Blair”—you click around and around, squinting at the screen in the throes of indecision. Your dog sighs. Your queso dip congeals. By the time you throw in the towel and decide to re-watch The Big Lebowski, an hour has passed.
This scenario will likely sound familiar to anyone who’s made the switch from old-fashioned cable TV to the all-access, all-the-time world of streaming. Netflix—and similar services like Amazon Prime, Hulu, Crackle, or Google Play—is better than cable in so many easily deducible ways: With the inexpensive availability of a streaming library, we get arguably more interesting content, more movies, access to older shows not in syndication, and fewer chances of glimpsing Donald Trump or those Pawn Stars guys. Above all, streaming promises choice, which regular television, with its finite number of channels and its regularly scheduled programming, has in limited supply—even equipped with On Demand.
It probably goes without saying that more choice is a good thing. Or, ostensibly it is: Sometimes, as in the time-sucking scenario described above, it can be oddly restricting. As a species, we secretly crave limits—overwhelmed by so many options, we often find ourselves browsing only a small fraction of what is available to us. Netflix and its ilk, of course, aids us in our complacency by pushing recommendations based on viewing habits, as far as it can discern them, prominently displayed in its rather simple menu. It’s much easier to choose a recommendation than to search and browse extensively, but this only further limits the variety of what Netflix will then push on us. It’s like getting peanut butter sandwiches from your grandma every time you visit because you told her you liked them when you were 6—instead of informing Grandma that you’ve moved on to more eclectic tastes, you eat the sandwiches, confirming that you will only get more, uninterrupted, next visit—and the visit after, and the visit after…
A potential solution to this quandary of variety is a “shuffle” option for Netflix (for other services too, but for the sake of ubiquity, we’ll just focus on Netflix). It’s one way to alleviate the blues of indecision, since a shuffle option would choose for us, whether it’s a random episode from a long-running series, a horror movie, or a stand-up comedy special. This option would also enable us to step outside of our typical viewing habits. A quick Google search indicates that this idea is already in the air via Twitter, Reddit, and various blogs—a couple of like-minded websites have even been half-heartedly established (netflixroulette.net and the now-defunct netflixshuffle.com) and Google Chrome Extensions now offers a sizeable number of Netflix hacks, including a “play random episode” button (strictly used for one television series at a time). If anything, these user-created shortcuts indicate that subscribers are looking for a little more randomness.
One appealing quality of a shuffle option is its plying of nostalgia, making streaming more like the experience of watching television traditionally. Though streaming is still “television” in so many essential ways, it’s a medium in transition, and those trading in their cable for streaming services will find some parts of the traditional TV experience altered, particularly the way broadcast programming works. In his seminal 1975 work, Television, cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams characterized the medium as a fairly passive entertainment, examining “the way we speak of ‘watching television,’ ‘listening to the radio,’ picking on the general rather than the specific experience” (ps. 89-90). Williams’s concept of “flow,” or everything we watch during one “evening’s viewing” of television (including advertising, transitional content and channel flipping) has since defined the way scholars talk about the medium. But through the years, developments like the VCR, DVR and now streaming have changed the way we regard “flow” as it becomes something more deliberate than just “watching television”—we are choosing what we watch and when, rather than tuning in to what is already on. In music streaming, shuffle has long been a way to approximate that “listening to the radio” experience. Why couldn’t it do the same for the experience of “watching television” through Netflix?
Degrees of passivity and viewer agency are constantly changing through new television technologies, which increasingly grant the viewer more control over “flow.” Now with a service like Netflix, we are programming our own content to a degree we’ve never been able to manipulate before. And yet, the closest Netflix comes to traditionally programmed flow is in the “post-play” feature, which automatically queues up the next selection after a chosen program has ended. With television series, this is always the next episode, in chronological order; with movies, it is a selection made by Netflix’s debatably precise algorithm. But Netflix is in control of our viewing experience in other ways as well, and its menu system is part of its programmed flow. In a 2013 interview with Wired, Netflix VP of Innovation, Carlos Gomez Uribe, explained their pretty transparently simple system:
He further emphasized that “recommendation is huge, and our search feature is what people do when we’re not able to show them what to watch.”
So while we do choose what to watch on Netflix, Gomez Uribe and his company make it their mission to “show us what to watch,” which ultimately narrows the field of options from which we actually choose. Raymond Williams foresaw this type of shift in television in Television when he imagined a future of satellite, cable television and VCR, stating, “There would be choice within such a system, but choice on its terms” (p. 151). As a recent Paste article pointed out, Netflix’s recommendation system is far from perfect, and sometimes infuriatingly shallow. Also limiting is Netflix’s emphasis on “binge-watching” television series in order, from pilot episode to series finale. Because the best way to discover a new favorite series is not always to begin with the pilot, as many classics have taken a few episodes, if not a whole season, to find their footing. Had I started watching, say, Parks and Recreation from its first episode rather than stumbling upon it during its second season, I may not have stuck around to revel in one of my now-favorite sitcoms.
Television series would be perhaps the most practical application of the shuffle option, particularly those classic series that have already been airing in syndication for years. One streaming service, FXNOW, is already using it for one series only: its collection of “Every Simpsons Ever,” which offers a “play random episode” button. But an overall shuffle option, offered alongside the standard Netflix streaming experience (which would still allow us to take control when we want to), would be useful in a different way. This option would seem from the outset to give us less choice, because we are not technically choosing at all; a random selection is being served to us. But the only current way to really choose on our terms on Netflix is to specifically search. Even then, if what you’re searching is unavailable, Netflix will direct you to options it deems similar. Simply based on what we’ve already viewed within their carefully arranged system, Netflix “shows us what to watch”, a practice that, while convenient, can feel uncomfortably like pigeonholing.
But is total randomness the answer? While Netflix recommendations are restricting, the appeal of them (aside from their ease of access), is that they wade through a lot of content. In a library so vast, a random shuffle could be potentially as frustrating as the current system for even the most mildly discerning viewer. When we “shuffle” in iTunes, we are shuffling only within our personal library; likewise, traditional cable television still sets expectations by channel, time of day and time of year, among many factors. So how do we make Netflix randomness palatable?
iTunes provides us with a decent model: a user can shuffle their entire library, or within smart playlists, restricted by album, artist or genre (iTunes does not make this as easy as it should be, but that’s another conversation). As noted above, Netflix is fastidious about genre, dissecting the well-known video store categories of yore (drama, comedy, horror) into many overlapping micro-categories. If users were able to access a randomly generated list of Netflix genres (and not just the genres Netflix thinks we want to see), we could choose one to shuffle within, thus limiting the randomness, to an extent. This would allow us to take advantage of Netflix’s extensive categorization without always relying solely on the problematic recommendations feature. As with iTunes, the ability to shuffle by “album” (television series) or “artist” (actor or director) should also be available for those days when you know, more or less, what you want.
I suppose we can never get back that feeling of stumbling upon a movie on late-night television, not knowing what it is, and feeling like you’re in on a secret. Even on cable television, it’s simply not possible to see something without being one button-push away from its title, year and cast. But one thing randomizing does (besides skipping the drawn-out decision-making process) is open up the possibility of seeing something out of left field, something unlike anything else you’ve seen. It removes that feeling that you’re this or that sort of viewer. Which may be antithetical to Netflix’s control over its own metrics—because demographics still rule the day—but a shuffle button is somehow more human, freeing us from categorization and allowing us to arrive at that particular film or episode, the one we (or Netflix) would never, ever have considered for us. Randomness, in all of its imperfections, will make Netflix perfect.