Sweet Streams, Baby: Are Netflix’s Algorithms Genius or Devious?
Netflix is keeping us awake. I’m not talking about its latest gameshow: Awake: The Million Dollar Game, where contestants must stay awake for 24 hours while repeating tedious challenges in order to win mountains of cash—though what I am talking about is oddly similar in its combination of money, entertainment, and a deliberate lack of sleep.
The seamless, intensely personalized consumer pathways practically beg us to binge, and then binge some more. Netflix has said as much itself: In 2017 the company’s CEO declared that its biggest competitor was not Amazon, Hulu, or HBO Go—but rather, sleep. This was, of course, a marketing stunt (the headlines practically wrote themselves) but not one without a certain amount of truth to it.
For broadcast television, prime time viewing is between 8-11 p.m. For Netflix’s 148 million subscribers, peak viewing time is between 12-2 a.m. The shift in hours reflects a broader shift in viewing habits. With traditional television, viewers had to follow a network’s schedule of shows, whereas streaming services allow us to watch whatever we want, whenever we want (and wherever we want, as long as we can bring along a laptop or a phone). We also no longer have to wait a week to see what happens after a show’s tantalizing cliffhanger, giving rise to a new culture of binge-watching so pervasive that anyone reading this is likely to have firsthand experience in it.
Obviously, keeping people glued to the screen helps Netflix’s bottom line. As Navin Iyengar, a product designer at Netflix, said in a talk last year, one of the company’s key metrics is “how much people stream,” which UX designers then aim “to get a little bit higher.” If Netflix’s goal is to increase viewing hours, and viewing hours are highest in the middle of the night, it’s in Netflix’s interest to keep its consumers awake.
Ever since House of Cards released all of its episodes at once, much has been written on how binge-watching has spurred an unprecedented narrative form, one freed from the constraints of network viewing. Today’s television is not film, not episodic, not contained, but something else entirely. In this new era of television (often referred to as a “golden age”) where we slide from one great episode into the next, technology has ushered in an artful new way of storytelling, but also the inability to look away from it. I watch all the new shows and I love this heyday of television writing—I’m one of its most faithful followers. That’s why it can be hard for me to reconcile the fact that the technology and platforms that I use to watch Fleabag or Succession all in one delicious go, which I can carry in the palm of my hand and into my bed at night, is a technology that I don’t yet fully understand the implications of, especially when it comes to its repercussions on my health and mental wellbeing.
Reports say that 71% of binge viewing happens by accident, with “people watching far more than they wanted to.” Of course, the plots of the shows tantalize us all to watch more with their twisting narrative arcs and complex, relatable characters. But the UX design of many of the major streaming services has increasingly dictated our viewing habits, most notably with the post-play experience of Netflix or Hulu, where credits are skipped after five seconds and a new episode automatically begins. People wind up watching more than they intended, not only because the episodes are so good, but because the platform’s functionality makes it so easy. We are Dionysus lying on our bellies, being fed great, purple grapes while not having to lift a finger.
Counting electric sheep: The UX that keeps us binging
I’ve always required television to get to sleep, and I’m not a good sleeper. When I was a kid in London, I would roll our living room television set into my bedroom and feed it a VHS. I liked watching placid, homey British sitcoms because I had seen them many times before; the monotonous plots that I knew by heart kept my mind still. Later, with the advent of cheap box sets, I watched The Simpsons and Friends via a portable DVD player. Studies and researchers aren’t on the same page about whether or not watching television in this format has a negative impact on sleep; some say it does, others say it’s harmless. All I know is that if I didn’t watch television, I found it very hard to nod off at night, and I still do.
While I was a university student, suddenly all this great television appeared on my laptop—all of it on demand, all the time. My intensely personalized Netflix account—featuring what felt like hundreds of “Strong Female Lead” programs, made just for me—successfully enticed me away from the calming familiarity of Friends. Why watch the same thing if there was all this newness to explore? My nighttime viewing hours grew later and later.
According to a study commissioned by the National Sleep Association, 60% of Americans watch television every night, or almost every night within the hour before going to sleep. For those of us who used television as a sleep aid, we now seem to be facing a new phenomenon. Television’s format has changed, and we’re constantly invited to find more, discover new shows, and keep watching. “It makes a lot of sense that you’re finding your sleep ritual different from when you watched Friends as a boxset,” says social scientist Dr. Jan Van den Bulck of the University of Michigan, who studies the relationship between media use and sleep. “You liked Friends enough to switch off all other thoughts, but it’s not so engaging that you won’t be able to sleep. Now the content you’re watching is more stimulating and involving.”
The UX of the top streaming services are expertly designed to encourage me to binge and remain on the platform for as long as possible. Personalized suggestions on Netflix or Amazon (in sections like “Because You Watched Working Moms…”) provide me with shows I’m more likely to binge; they work to cut down my browsing time so that I hit play quickly. Other categories like “Crime” might seem generic, but the algorithm is tailored to my specific preferences within that category. Even the artwork on homepages is personalized: Netflix creates multiple versions of a show’s artwork and runs A/B tests to see which are most effective for different types of viewers. The design of Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime is doing everything it can to ensure I start a video almost as instantly as I enter the app. Then they want me to stay in play mode, happily immersed in the automatic full-screen, where I can no longer see my laptop’s clock.
All these streamlined UX features mean that when I’m tucked in bed in the dark, I barely need to think about what to watch when I’m trying to get myself to sleep. Once I start, it’s more difficult to turn off than to keep going. At the end of an episode, Netflix teases me with a screenshot from what’s up next, along with short synopsis hinting at something important (“Maybe my favorite couple will get back together?”). Before I can second guess myself (“Actually, maybe it’s better I try to go to sleep?”), the next episode is already up and running (“Why not just one more?”). Through the combination of end credits automatically skipping as well as me tapping the “Skip Intro” button, cutting out the sequence at the start of a show, I’m no longer aware of where one episode ends and another begins. What feels like two ends up being five, and suddenly it’s 3 a.m.
“Netflix gives you five seconds to make up your mind about watching the next episode,” says Van den Bulck. “The primitive, reptilian part of our brain works so that when you see a cookie, if you’re not careful, you’ll eat it—even if on a higher level of condition you’re thinking, ‘It’s not healthy for me.’” Automatic play has stripped away the moment of cognitive pause that we all need to make a reasonable decision. In the past, when we had to get up to change the DVD to continue watching a boxset, that break from the show allowed us time to second guess decision. The moment of disruption—where we were suddenly back in our living-rooms, conscious of the world around us—also felt like the natural end-point to an evening of television viewing. Now, nothing breaks us from total immersion.
Netflix lets its subscribers turn off “automatic play” in their settings, but it’s not easy to work out how to do so. It’s far simpler to opt in then it is to opt out. If you do manage to turn it off, you’ll probably end up missing it, because the function is so convenient (“I need it when I’m using the rowing machine,” says Van den Bulck). All of Netflix’s UX is exceedingly good, from the way it knows us personally to how quickly we can get to where we want to go. And good UX coupled with great television has a way of encouraging bad viewing habits.
Sleep to dream: Are you still watching?
There hasn’t been a huge amount of research into the effects that new media possibilities like streaming have on sleep behavior. Studies have proven that screen exposure disrupts sleep onset and affects melatonin output, and that video games and social media prolong bedtimes. One paper co-authored by Van den Bulck has explored the effects of binge-watching on sleeping habits. It found that those who identify as binge viewers report poorer sleep quality, with more daytime fatigue and symptoms of insomnia. They also have a 98% higher likelihood of having a bad night’s sleep.
Since 2017, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine has been publishing blog posts urging viewers to “binge-watch responsibly,” with tips on getting a good night’s sleep for the subscribers of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and Amazon Prime. Common advice includes things like, “set an episode limit before you begin watching;” or, “download episodes and turn off the wifi;” and, “schedule time on the weekend to catch up on shows.” Of course, the idea of ‘responsible fun’ is stuffy and boring. Netflix has even poked fun at the “party-pooper” tone of medical warnings with satirical content featuring beloved actors who advise us to “binge responsibly” (it’s since taken them down).
But if you look at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s tips and take them seriously as advice from medical professionals, as we probably should, you can see that they directly attempt to counter exactly what the UX is designed for. “Set an episode limit” is the very antithesis of the automatic play function. Netflix also makes it difficult to figure out how to download an episode. Lastly, how can you “schedule time on the weekend to catch up on shows” if an alert from Netflix pops up on your phone on a Wednesday evening, tempting you with the news that your favorite show has a new season out right this instant?
There are UX features that could encourage less addictive behavior, features that could work in tandem with the Academy of Sleep’s tips. “We don’t need some kind of preaching message at the end of episodes saying, ‘No, you shouldn’t be watching more’,” says Van den Bulck. “We know that’s not going to work. And if you’re someone who gets enjoyment out of watching more than one episode, we don’t want design that’s going to make that hard for you.”
What Van den Bulck does suggest, is the creation of an external app or internal feature that asks users as they log in, ‘How many episodes is your ideal tonight?’ “Then, it could send reminders after you’ve passed the limit, asking ‘Are you sure you want to continue?’ Then after another episode, it could ask ‘Are you still watching?’ And so on, before eventually switching off if I don’t respond.” I’ve also found reddit forums deploring the lack of a sleep timer on various streaming services—I’m not the only one jolted awake at 4 a.m. by a raucous tune of a trailer that automatically plays after a show came to an end.
While it seems unlikely that streaming services will implement sleep-positive measures in their UX, one positive of an intervention like the one Van den Bulck describes is that it could cultivate a better appreciation and savoring of the great television that’s being written. Research has proven that you’re far less likely to remember a show if you binge it, and I know that if I watch a final episode at 3 a.m., its details will be fuzzy the next day.
For profit-making enterprises, sleep is a dead, un-monetizable time. As Jonathan Crary writes in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep, “Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonised and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability,” unlike the other human necessities of food, drink, sex, and friendship. This doesn’t mean companies aren’t trying to harness it. Earlier this year, The Pokémon Company launched Pokémon Sleep, a new app that makes “sleep tracking fun” by rewarding players for their shut-eye (and in doing so, ensures that the first thing they do when you wake up is open the app). Netflix, on the other hand, is proudly waging its war against sleep with ‘binge-watching’ as it’s not-so-secret weapon, and sleek UX that entices consumers into hours upon hours of wide-eyed pleasure.
This article was written in partnership with AIGA’s Eye on Design publication.
Illustration by Avalon hu