In recent years, many people — myself included — have blamed social media for exacerbating political divisions in the United States. With its echo chambers and algorithmic bubbles, social media undoubtedly deserves some of that criticism. But I believe that another culprit, one even more omnipresent in most people’s lives, has slipped under the radar. Online streaming, the world’s favorite pandemic pastime, is contributing to the sectarianism that poisons American politics.
Streaming services are similar to social media in many ways. Despite huge libraries of available titles, most users prefer to trust the recommendations of algorithms. In the last two years, more than 80 percent of shows watched on Netflix came from Netflix recommendations. Viewers find themselves in a sort of locked lounge, watching only movies and T.V. shows that fall within their comfort zone.
Now, one might ask what the problem with personalized T.V. is. What’s wrong with watching exclusively British dramas or rom-coms? The issue is that streaming algorithms are far more complex than that. They take not only genre into account, but also sort for more substantive things like themes, political messages and the like. Just like social media, streaming algorithms trap viewers in a bubble of self-reinforcement and comfortable complacency.
The problem is especially pressing because of the influence television exerts on our psyche. The average American spends almost three hours per day watching television. Most of that watching is streamed, since 91 percent of Americans are subscribed to a streaming service, compared to only 36 percent using cable T.V. like CNN or Fox News. And while your baking show may seem trivial compared to political news channels, even sitcoms or period romances can have a major role in how you perceive the world around you.
The splintering of streaming services has further exacerbated the problem. When Netflix had a stranglehold over most titles, viewers could at least theoretically experience the same movies and shows. Now, cost-conscious Americans must decide between not just Netflix, HBO or Disney, but also a host of small, highly targeted streaming services. These range from sites intended for Black viewers, to Christian-centric services, to the NRA’s recently defunct pro-gun streaming service. These targeted sites have their advantages, allowing people to focus on topics that interest them. Yet at the same time, they create insularity and prevent the broader public from having access to their titles. As a result, the big-ticket platforms often focus on programs guaranteed to be popular with a wide audience, with problematic consequences.
The issue goes deeper than “encouraging political discourse” or any other hackneyed phrase pseudo-intellectuals like my co-columnist use when talking about social media. Movies and T.V. shows are crucial cultural touchstones. When I talk on the phone with my sister, we usually begin by hashing out the latest show we both watched. Maria the figurative Trump supporter and Carl the hypothetical Bernie bro may not agree on much, but they can still complain to each other about the latest Star Wars movie. That is, until Carl switches to HBO Max, leaving Maria with Disney+ and no common ground. Historically, entertainment has provided much of the glue that holds societies together, but today, streaming drives us apart. Streaming cuts us off from the communal aspects of entertainment by appealing to our selfishness – all that matters is our own entertainment preferences.
This isn’t intended to be some tech-phobic take about how new things make everything worse. Personally, I can thank streaming services for many hours of fun (and many late Seeing Double drafts). But at the same time, we must remember that technology always comes with drawbacks. The best way to remain a conscientious consumer is to take chances in your viewing. You might find something you enjoy. When we can be open-minded about the small things, the important things will follow.