Since Netflix and other streaming services have grown in popularity, society and the people that comprise it have begun to feel their influence. The American entertainment company has far-reaching power to change the minds and behavior of its customers; it inspired the term “Netflix and chill,” which, though dated at this point, remains in the consciousness of many young people and older individuals as well. However, the impact of Netflix on American society has broader implications than a memetic euphemism for sex.
The binge-watching capability of Netflix might be leading to shorter attention spans. Gone are the days when we would wait a week for new content; we watch whole seasons in a day and finish TV series in a few weeks. Along with smartphones, which are almost always at our disposal, Netflix has created a means for constant entertainment. If we are bored, we need not think for more than a few moments before we open up the laptop and begin a Netflix marathon. The amount of content (not necessarily all good) provides an endless stream of entertainment. Hours may be lost. The lack of commercials also adds to this inability to endure delays.
Netflix, like scrolling through Snapchat or viewing Twitter, also need not be a group activity. We may be social creatures, but Netflix is making us less so. Netflix has changed how we entertain ourselves, and in doing so it is altering the way we spend time with family and friends. Because Netflix can be watched from many different platforms and is thus a mobile form of entertainment, it allows individuals to get up and go wherever they have internet connection to watch their favorite shows or movies. Because so many Americans have portable devices and many different kinds of them, they can isolate and entertain themselves without having any other human contact.
Movie theater attendance has continued to fall over the years, and now the most important use of live-streamed television is, arguably, for sports. People might fume over political debates together around a television, or watch a game at a sports bar, but for simple entertainment, Netflix encourages people to retreat to corners of their living spaces and entertain themselves alone.
This physical separation between family and friends is not the only form of isolation that Netflix encourages. The streaming that Netflix provides may also be deepening the differences between Americans culturally and thus politically. In December 2016, a New York Times graphic showed that Americans in different geographical areas, such as urban versus rural, watch different shows. In urban areas, people watch shows like “Orange is the New Black,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and “American Horror Story.” In rural areas, people watch shows like “Bones,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Supernatural.” Other maps have demonstrated that people who voted for President Trump last fall were mostly people from rural areas, whereas those who voted for Hillary Clinton were predominantly from urban areas.
Because Netflix leads viewers to new shows based on what was previously watched, it has the effect of creating a cultural bubble. People who watch certain types of shows or movies will be more likely to watch the types of movies that fit models that more closely align with how they view the world. Without exposure to other types of media, people will not understand each other nearly as well. At the very least, people who watch different shows will have less to talk about.
Netflix does not act alone; the streaming service is among many new technologies that impact human behavior, including the services provided by Amazon that allow humans to do their shopping online. The way Netflix uses information about the previous shows one watched parallels the way YouTube history recommends videos, and it resembles the algorithm that Facebook uses for the content it shows its users. Together, these technologies are separating Americans from people with different worldviews and experiences.
These implications may seem far-fetched, and it is hard to distinguish the effects of one company or technology from the rest. There also does not seem to be a clear path to counter the possible impacts that Netflix has on us as people. We should start by acknowledging that Netflix may be affecting us. Netflix may be loved by many, but it does have qualities that may be hurting our society.