Streaming Television & Nonlinear Viewing

On Netflix, you can start a show wherever you want to, even in the middle of the plot.

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As I do more of this writing about technology, I’m contemplating renaming the newsletter “Algorithmic Culture” or maybe algocult for short, since everything needs a name. It’ll probably still be under my name, and I’ll promote my book and stories etc (watch out for that newsletter next week) but that is to say, you can subscribe for weekly columns on the ways technology shapes how we create and consume culture. 

Nonlinear Viewing 

There came a moment when Succession, an HBO series about a rich and dysfunctional family competing over the control of a Fox-like media empire, was mentioned so often on my Twitter timeline by so many people whose taste I trust that I had to watch it. It’s not that the show looked bad or I was consciously avoiding it; I was just busy, and definitely conflated it in my head with Billions (one word titles?), which I watched one episode of on a plane and did not enjoy.

So when I had a spare evening, I opened HBO Now and started streaming. But I didn’t begin at season one, episode one. No, I jumped in at the first episode of season two, which is right after the tumultuous conclusion of the first season’s story arc. (I will not spoil it for you, but if you watch season two you will immediately know.) I really liked the show! I went on to watch the other extant episodes of season two, and now I’m watching it in real time with everyone else. I’ve also watched… episodes 7, 8, and 9 of the first season, because the titles or synopses looked good. I still haven’t seen the beginning. 

This nonlinear viewing is a nice thing that streaming lets you do; rather than the old preprogrammed cable channels, you can just choose which show and which part of a show you want to watch. (Linear refers to the real-time nature of old-school TV, the kind you couldn’t pause or skip.) No need to wait for reruns, marathons, or DVDs. Nonlinear viewing disrupts the writer or director’s control over the consumer in an interesting way, leaving us more in command of the story. 

I jumped in at the middle partly because I just wanted to join the social-media conversation immediately, to know what other people were talking about. But it’s also a habit of mine. I pick up books my girlfriend is reading and just proceed from wherever she is. I love watching snippets of movies on other people’s airplane seatback screens, and when I’m watching one on my own, I fast-forward and rewind constantly, turning the story into a messy abstraction. 

I think I do this because I usually appreciate moods and textures more than climactic storytelling or character development. If you flip open a book or start watching a random episode, you might not understand the story, but you will certainly get a glimpse of the pure aesthetic or mood of a thing, removed from all other context. And that’s definitely my favorite part.

I started talking to friends about my newfound Succession obsession, admitting that I hadn’t watched season one. “But Kyle!” they screamed in agony. “Then how would you know about XYZ subtle foreshadowing / precipitating event / great line?” The answer is I don’t, and I don’t care. Plot and suspense are stressful to me and to be avoided in any circumstance. Plot makes me squirm even while watching Big Little Lies, which, to many other viewers, might seem aimless and ambient. Plot apathy is why I love watching Terrace House, a very slow Japanese reality show about almost nothing.

By starting in the middle, I can avoid getting caught in the trap of trying to anticipate what’s coming next (which to some people is the point of TV, I guess). It spares me a bunch of exposition but provides the puzzle of figuring out what did already happen. When I feel like it, I can go through the back catalog and have everything explained. 

Succession also suits this way of watching because it’s not a show with a ton of subtlety. It has lots of detail, but subtlety, maybe not. The action is pretty literal. The characters constantly reiterate to the viewer what’s going on. (“Roman is trying to do what??”) Its joy is in its textures, the sharp jabs of dialogue, theater-like blocking of scenes, and sumptuous sets — whatever mansion they’re in this week. I prefer focusing on those pleasures rather than the inevitable question of who’s going to take over the family business. 

We should embrace nonlinear viewing as a form of resistance to the automated Content Funnel. Netflix wants you to just start at the beginning, like a normal person. But other worlds are possible! 

Other Algocult News 

— The search algorithm in Apple’s app store privileges its own products. So much for being unbiased.

— Google decides to make its Google News surfacing algorithm emphasize original reporting, like the sources of scoops, rather than aggregation or commentary. 

— Universities are admitting students and giving out financial aid “using sophisticated predictive algorithms, of what the student is worth to the college and what the college is worth to the student.”

— The clothing retailer Stitch Fix automates personal style, offering “algorithmically generated outfits” for the clothes you buy. (See also my essay Style Is an Algorithm.)

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