‘It’s hard to describe, it’s fractal, disorienting and overwhelming’
The film analysis from YouTuber Thomas Flight about ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ explains very accurately a feeling that most people who spend a lot of time on the internet consuming information may recognize. A feeling of being fractal, disoriented, and sometimes even overwhelmed. But at the same time, it’s enticing and all inspiring. He figures out in his analysis that he is not the only one who feels like this.
Several artists started to explore these feelings and the film is one of those explorations. If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it and I won’t go into details about how the film plays with these emotions. But what I will say is that the internet and our relationship to it is one of the core elements unsurprisingly. From my perspective, that movie is also closer to the truth than you might think and might be one of the reasons why we haven’t acted with more attention and focused on some of the problems that we have in this relationship.
The internet is a technology of freedom
This term was coined by the American academic Ithiel de Sola Pool in 1973 and I think he was not wrong. This endless savannah has created a space where curious people can find everything about anything. I believe the internet has brought us further as a society and made us advance significantly in various directions. But it is also a double-edged sword. Tickling your curiosity has become a business model in itself. This is why most companies talk about increasing ‘engagement’. They all want your attention, all the time.
Even when there is no commercial goal, everyone and everything fights for your valuable and arguably shortening attention span. It has become a goal in itself and the quality of that engagement is starting to decline. I think people have started to realize this luckily and are making different choices in search of better quality. But why is this happening?
Why I think Netflix is losing subscribers or Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi didn’t get the expected iMDB score
In April of this year, the world gasped when Netflix announced its quarterly results and the seemingly untouchable streaming giant’s shares plummeted. I have my assumptions on how this might have happened and it’s pretty ironic.
Do you remember the Netflix hit ‘The Social Dilemma‘? That explained to us how social media companies have designed their technology to keep us engaged all the time, with unforeseen consequences like depression. It appears Netflix has basically made the same mistake. Although I can completely understand you may have unsubscribed because of a significant rise in costs, the upcoming ad variant or the upcoming restriction of sharing outside your household. That has been tested out in smaller markets already.
I think it’s because if you look at the transcript of the quarterly meeting just two metrics pop up that they pay attention to ROI (Return of Investment) and engagement time. It doesn’t matter what you watch, how you watch, or that you are simultaneously on your phone, we just want your attention.
They did implement recently a functionality that allows for a thumbs up or thumbs down in terms of interest but it doesn’t really seem they care much about it. My assumption is that a large chunk of the content is just created to generate noise, if it’s actually good, that is a different story. I mean how many times have you scrolled with somebody through Netflix and they say: ‘I got nothing to watch?
On Reddit, there are several theories and comments floating around about how streaming services deplete all quality production crews and are now settling for B or even C-grade crews. Referring to these productions as ‘second-screen’ productions. Basically means: that you can watch it while being on your phone. We just want to create some noise to be able to write down your engagement this month. Oh, you also have to pay for that.
Another example is Disney+ and their Obi-Wan Kenobi show (don’t worry I won’t spoil anything). After seventeen long years of waiting the fans have waited on this show. But it seems that if you read the iMDB score or look at some of the reviews on YouTube, people are disappointed. I have watched the whole show and I’m a huge Star Wars fan it’s not bad by any means but it’s so obvious this show is part of a bigger engagement business plan. Some of the content is just straight-up filler. Because what if we can keep you engaged over a longer period of time? That seems to be more important than creating a good flowing story for a beloved character.
It’s all about the conscious choices that we make as designers while working
It’s easy to push these examples away and say ‘well, that’s just what commercial companies do. They want to make money.’ But I don’t really think this is the way to go or the way we should go as a developed species.
I like to take the examples from above because telling stories, entertainment and media are such big parts of our lives. We love to hear stories that we can share, learn from, grow from, or just straight up be entertained by. We spend a lot of time reading books, seeing movies, and watching shows and it’s interesting to see how this is also hugely affected by the internet and this engagement and attention business model.
Although the studies are not conclusive yet about our attention span problems, I do think this overwhelming amount of information that is also distributed through business models specifically designed to scratch that curiosity itch is a serious problem. Especially when the engagement itself is all that seems to matter and not the value it brings to humans.
I think this problem of being overwhelmed, dependent on technology, and even bigger problems like the depression it can cause can be solved (to some extent) by focussing on good user experience design. Is that what we create on the internet resonating or valuable for the person interacting with it?
YouTube was initially designed as a free-sharing platform, where people got access to information quickly. Now, I have to plow through six advertisements and decline a free month of YouTube Premium about thirty times a week… hardly good user experience design.
To solve for this it’s important that designers become aware of this problem. Is the goal creating a good user experience or are we just trying to generate engagement to serve our business model? As a User Experience Designer, you are balancing your work between business and human. This is your responsibility as you design for a human with a task. Usually, it’s easy to recognize the intention if data & analytics for your experience come into place. What is valuable for the people you work with to know? Are they asking the right questions?
Fundamentally I believe that good design is the most successful way to go, as it is proven time and time again. Good marketing can sell bad products, but only for a limited amount of time. To have a long-lasting relationship you need to have good design, as is the same with the internet or let’s say a streaming service.
In this video, Steve Jobs is challenged on his technical knowledge and Apple’s OpenDoc, which was designed as a competitor to the Microsoft solution for compound documents. As history would have it Jobs ‘put a bullet through the head’ of the project and fired all the people working on it. The reason is that they looked at the technology first with the engineers and then try to figure out how to make it actually valuable for the customer. According to him, the wrong way around.
A bold move as it was a multi-year project and cost a lot of money. I also think he is not wrong. The philosophy to first look at your customer’s or user’s needs and then work backward to the technology has made Apple one of the most successful companies in the world. You could have a discussion if that is still the philosophy in 2022, but it was a good strategy, to begin with.
For a user of the internet, it’s hard to force the hand of companies if they don’t allow them to give this feedback in the first place. So it’s up to the designers who have this fortunate position, to talk with the clients or companies they work with to think about this. To focus on a philosophy that believes that valuable experiences, generate business value and make the world a better place. It sounds very utopian but I don’t think it’s impossible.
To give an example of falling back on streaming services: HBO Max seems to understand what we want. Affordable price, a well-designed interface, quality content and so far I experience a pretty good filter bubble I’m in over there. Let’s do this!