How Netflix hooks us (and how to stop it)

Back in the mid-1990s, a guy named Reed Hastings rented Apollo 13 on videotape from Blockbuster Video and lost it, incurring a $40 fine. It was the first in a chain of events that would eventually close video stores across America and transform the media industry. Hastings founded Netflix, and through low monthly pricing and advances in internet bandwidth and video compression, the company has progressed from a DVD mailing service to the largest and most successful streaming platform on the planet. Today, Netflix boasts over 150 million subscribers and well over 5,000 titles in its library.

Dominating the streaming market means the company has to work hard to keep eyeballs on screens and subscriptions renewing every month. In addition to spending billions each year on original content and lucrative content partnerships, Netflix also designs its platform to maximize viewer engagement, striving to win as much of your attention as possible, even at the expense of sleep, leisure, or social activities. Here are a few ways Netflix vies for your attention, and how you can keep it in check.

First, you may have noticed automatic playback of an episode (or a trailer or clip) when you hover over a title inside the platform. Netflix knows that if it can play some video, you’ll be more likely to watch it. But it’s an affront on our ability to make sovereign decisions about what we watch. To help combat this, do a little thinking about what you want to watch and how long BEFORE you turn Netflix on. And once you’re in, keep your finger moving or navigate to a page that doesn’t have auto start.

A second method Netflix uses to hook you is taking away the credits. Traditionally, the credit roll gives us a brief period of reflection. That’s when we can decide if we really should watch more or move on to other things. By default, Netflix starts the next episode of whatever show you’re watching after a few seconds of the previous one finishing. But with remote in hand as a show ends, you can take control by choosing the watch credits option. This will give you a breather between episodes and let you decide on your next move.

A third way Netflix works to keep you watching is by continually changing content thumbnails, thus giving the illusion that every time you log on, everything is new and undiscovered. Being aware of this will help you navigate the system with more focus and less chance of experiencing decision fatigue.

Internet TV and streaming platforms like Netflix are currently a part of our reality, but we always have the option to opt out, cancel our subscriptions and turn off the television. Even if you aren’t ready to go that far, by taking control of your viewing experience, you’ll be more likely to avoid the pitfalls associated with addictive TV viewing.

This post was originally published in the October 2019 newsletter of The Technoskeptic magazine. The magazine and its related podcast offer intelligent technology criticism. Learn more at thetechnoskeptic.com.

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