Thursday, November 19, 2015

Breaking Bad was a UI Problem

We are, by most accounts, in the throes of a new “golden age” of “prestige television,” or whatever it is you want to call this current abundance of extremely serious hour-long dramas that inspire such fanatical devotion. It is hard work even for those who don’t watch. With the notable exception of timely and topical late night talk shows, we have largely moved from “Did you see [an episode]?” to “Do you watch [an entire series]?” Viewership has become a commitment, even an obligation.

As with most forms of media, there is now far more than we could ever keep up with, but I’m not here to scold you — go right ahead, watch as much as you want! Life outside is exhausting, and nobody faults you for wanting to melt into your couch the moment you walk through the front door. It’s not that there is too much television. There is, with some acceptable margin of error, roughly the right amount of television, whatever that means as determined by audience attention and other nebulous cultural and market forces. What’s weird is that so much of it is headed in the same direction.

When Breaking Bad debuted in 2008 — to comparatively little critical acclaim, at first — Netflix still had less than 10 million subscribers to its hybrid service, which combined a lackluster streaming library with DVDs sent by mail. Today they now have 30 million subscribers, most paying for the streaming feature alone. Nearly forty percent of American homes pay for access to a streaming video service like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video. A theory: even excluding forays into original programming, their prevalence has now started to shape the material they present.

As we’ve seen from a decade of arms races in SEO and social media, content evolves to jockey for position with its audience. Across its supported devices, Netflix has many slight variations on its user interface, all of which are atrocious by any measure except one: the array of available options is reliably insane, impossible to parse, but its mere presence usually does entice you to eventually click on something, if only because you want the list of titles to disappear and give way to something more entertaining than scrolling.

If consumers find all the options overwhelming, a simple and obvious result is gravitating toward serials; you get dozens, even hundreds of hours of entertainment without having to face down another decision. The shows can’t help but cater to this, because otherwise they will cease to exist, so even the introduction of light serial elements into previously episodic formats will pay off. Sitcoms are no longer purely driven by situations, instead relying on the progression of a character along a story arc — Mindy Kaling’s love life, Leslie Knope’s budding political career, lasting effects of Sterling Archer’s endless shenanigans. Details matter more than they used to. Picking something to watch can be exhausting if you put any thought into the decision; anything the show can do to help is appreciated, and the quickest way to the top of the user interface is through the “Recently Watched” list. The primary force driving the death of channel surfing may be the decreasingly viability of bundling programs and channels, but a close second is that the shows just don’t lend themselves to it.

This is a huge change from the pre-internet world of broadcast television, when many popular shows were isolated plot nuggets because it couldn’t be assumed that the viewer had been following previous installments. Now the entire back catalog is all right there, hidden beneath a button hovering just to the north. That in itself also just threatens more fatigue: which episode to watch? Damn, another decision to wrestle with!

Better to just line them all up in order.

Increased access brings its own kind of exhaustion, no matter the interface. Unless you have some bizarre taste for repeatedly facing down inconsequential decisions, your selections are likely driven by information overload. Information overload is a fundamental feature of the internet. The internet has introduced scales that tower beyond anything else we’ve invented aside from telescopes and microscopes. You are far less likely to own either of those than you are to have a Netflix subscription.

Serial television may be on the rise in response to consumer fatigue, but it is probably still a good thing for the medium — short-form stories and sketches are still fair game, and shorter episodic detours can still be embedded within a larger trajectory, and it’s easier to be creatively ambitious when the format allows larger canvases. Mainstream television is probably better overall than it was ten or twenty years ago, and since it is our most voluminous professional cultural product, this change should be applauded no matter how much of it you actually partake in.

But the power balance is clear. A few years ago, Netflix reported to Wired that 75% of user activity is driven by recommendation algorithms, which were fed classification data by a team of 40 data entry folks with varying degrees of industry engagement. At the time, they also employed 800 software developers. So engineering trumps cultural knowledge — is it really such a huge leap to then say the user interface shapes the script?

by Vijith Assar, The Message | Read More:
Image: Breaking Bad