What's Coming Next? Self-Definition and Accomplishment through the Construction of the Netflix Queue

In my graduate proseminar on media theory and methods, I spend a great deal of time getting students to think about how they can draw on their own personal experiences and interactions with media to inform their scholarship. This was a central theme in Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, which I co-edited with Jane Shattuc and Tara McPherson, which urges scholars to address the "culture that sticks to your skin," (a phrase inspired by Bruce Sterling's reference in Mirrorshades to "tech that sticks to your skin.") By this, we meant culture that is part of our everyday life, culture which provokes us either positively or negatively. The goal is to move cultural studies away from a language of distanced observation and towards an engagement that is up front and personal. It doesn't mean that we want only writing from fans (though of course it's no secret that I value the kinds of perspectives which fans bring to a topic.) It could also be a perspective that is antagonistic but open about its antagonism. It means being honest about where you are writing from and using a language which reflects your personal stakes in your topic. Popular culture is defined in part by its immediacy and it is not clear that one can meaningfully understand how it works or what it does without stepping at least temporarily into the realm of the proximate and the passionate. But it is not an easy thing to combine autobiography and theory effectively. I want to have my students struggle with what it means to balance these two pulls, to learn to reconcile these different languages and genre expectations through their writing. The students tell me that this is often the most challenging assignment they confront in the course. I have been grading these papers this weekend. Today, I wanted to share with you one of the papers to emerge from this assignment, with the permission, of course, of its author -- Debora Lui, who is a first years masters student in the Comparative Media Studies Program and one of the filmmakers working on the Project nml exemplar library. I felt that this particular essay would be of interest to my regular readers.

What's Coming Next? Self-Definition and Accomplishment through the Construction of the Netflix Queue

Debora Lui

In the midst of two extensive knee surgeries in 2003, I discovered Netflix. Pumped up on painkillers, feeling groggy and uninspired, I went online one day to check out the service. I had vaguely heard of Netflix before, but had never been motivated to join. At the time, I had just graduated from college and was too busy with my "real" life to let my usually rampant movie-watching aspirations tie me down. When I moved back home in the Fall following graduation however, I was in a totally different situation. I had just injured both of my knees (tearing both Anterior Cruciate Ligaments - an amazing feat, I assure you) and my parents convinced me to move home in order to have the surgery I required. I was unemployed and living in the suburbs; watching movies suddenly became appealing again. I received my first Netflix DVD shortly after my first knee operation.

To this day, I have still remained a loyal subscriber of the service despite the rise of stronger competitors like Blockbuster (with its coupons for free in-store rentals) and the more hip GreenCine (with its Indie movie lists and user blogs). But what was it about that particular time and situation that allowed Netflix to become such an intrinsic part of my life? The website provides a very simple, yet seemingly generic service. The basic gist of Netflix (according to the simple "instructions" listed on their website) is that you create list of DVDs you want to watch online, you wait for them to be sent to you, watch them, and then return the DVDs through the mail. It is not apparent, then, why I felt such an attachment to Netflix in particular or why the service had such an exceptional hold on me. After closer examination, however, I realized there are three aspects of Netflix that allowed it become such an integral part of my life, my constant guide and companion. First, Netflix provided me a source for continuous escapism; second, it gave me a never-failing sense of accomplishment; and third, it allowed me a platform for on-going identity construction and reconstruction.

Continuous Escapism

The first rental I received was the first disc of Dennis Potter's BBC series, The Singing Detective. Day and night, I was curling up with Potter's onscreen alter-ego Philip E. Marlow. I had not realized the irony at the time, of course. It would an understatement to say that Marlow wasn't the most loveable of characters, but there were some obvious similarities between us so I identified with him. I, too, was home-bound and bed-ridden, constantly feeling as if I was unable to participate in the world. Marlow created stories in his head to help him escape, and I watched Marlow create stories in his head in order to help me escape. It was a vicious cycle. Whether it was Marlow, the cast of characters for Cowboy Bebop, or Gregory Peck's character in Spellbound (respectively, my second and third rentals), I lived vicariously through their trials and travails.

Of course I wanted to escape - I was jobless, in post-surgery pain and just wanting to forget it all. Films were the perfect outlets through which I could continuously run away. The best thing about Netflix, though, wasn't that it provided me just one avenue for fleeing, but rather a continuous stream of raw material within which I could lose myself. I enjoyed all the conveniences that were initially advertised by the company; the three-at-a-time DVD plan was perfect for me. Unlike the far inferior one or two-at-a-time plans, where I might end up with nothing on hand while waiting for the next DVD in the mail, my plan allowed me nonstop opportunities for watching. One disc could be in the player, one on deck, and one could be sent back in expectation of another. In that way, anticipation of upcoming DVDs became as important as the experience of watching a movie itself. Browsing through Netflix's 75,000+ titles eventually became almost as satisfying as watching the movies themselves.

Through browsing occupied much of my time, my ability to compile the effort of these searches into a Netflix queue was what really drew me into the service. I had always been attached to making and checking things off lists (as many people are, as evidenced by the superfluity of "best of" movie guides these days), but Netflix technologized (and in a way, concretized) this interest by giving me tools to manage these lists dynamically. Unlike other static lists (such as the one in The A List: The National Society of Film Critics' 100 Essential Films which I bought shortly before I started subscribing to Netflix, incidentally), my personal queue on Netflix was constantly changing. It was an active list that morphed and transformed itself according to my mood and inclination. If I was suddenly feeling down and noticed that my next film was the soul-crushing Dancer in the Dark, for example, I could easily move The Triplets of Belleville and There's Something About Mary to the top of my list if need be. In a way, tightly controlling the list felt like self-medication of sorts. I could give myself larger or smaller doses of happiness, romance, or sobering reality based on what I added or removed from the list. The power to alter my mood and outlook became extremely addictive to a person in my post-operative position.

Sense of Accomplishment

While the queue gave me a no-fail method through which to transform my emotional experience, it also had the added advantage of providing concrete opportunities through which I could feel a sense of accomplishment. As I mentioned previously, watching DVDs somehow allowed me to live vicariously through fictional characters. Though I wouldn't personally be touring through 1950s San Francisco solving the mystery for who poisoned me, for example, I could feel like I was when watching the film noir, D.O.A.. However, this sense of accomplishment was not only gained through my vicarious experience of watching, but also the real feat of checking DVDs off my unending list of must-see movies or TV shows. Before I joined the service, I had previously started several aborted attempts at watching The Singing Detective. Netflix finally forced me to watch the series in full, something which had long been on my list of To-Dos.

Along the same lines, I also used to keep up with media "trends" through Netflix, watching the entire first seasons of Survivor and Lost (shows that I either shunned or inadvertently missed when they first aired on network TV). Thus, I felt as if I came to know what was happening in the world. Perhaps all of this seems trivial, but from my perspective, my inability to do "real" things in my post-operative state was made somehow less paralyzing when I knew I could watch DVDs and check them off my lists. The process of constructing my Netflix queue not only became just a matter of choosing what DVDs I was going to see, but also the DVDs I aspired to see. In that way, the compiling of this list seemed accomplishment in and of itself. It represented all the effort I had put into the process of learning what was available, what I could use to expand my knowledge, or what I could use to educate myself.

Identity Creation through the Netflix Queue

If creating the perfect Netflix queue helped me feel a sense of accomplishment, this is as much a matter of identity creation than preserving the list itself. It seems commonplace these days to imply that a person's favorite list of movies contributes heavily to their identity. This is clearly evidenced by the way in which social networking sites like Facebook prominently feature users' favorite books, music or movies as a part of their profiles. While this may seem limiting, many users are perfectly happy listing their favorite media properties in personal profiles as shorthand, surrogate identity markers.

This identity-creation aspect of listing movies definitely bleeds into the creation of my Netflix queue. As I previously mentioned, much of my effort on Netflix was put into searching for the DVDs that I could use to educate or cultivate myself into a "better" person. Of course, I often add movies that I simply want to see but these are usually impulse additions that don't fit into the larger matrix of my cultural education. So the actual process making the list becomes not just about movies I'd like to watch, but also about movies that contribute to my identity creation. I recognize, of course, that my categorization of the "right" kinds of films that give me the proper cultural capital is totally arbitrary, but my point here is that Netflix gives you tools with which you can easily create your own hierarchy. In this way, Netflix allows me continuously create and recreate my identity through my movie choices. This might seem strange in light of the fact I do not share my Netflix queue (though the feature of sharing your queue with your friends and family certainly affirm what I am saying here), but as I mentioned previously, the Netflix queue stands as an aspirational benchmark. That is why I can get away with leaving titles on my queue for many months at a time (Taxi Driver and Bonnie and Clyde have been on my queue for years, for example). Even though I'm not watching these films right now (or maybe ever), the fact that I aspire to see them and add them to my list is somehow significant and relevant. It means something.

Similarly, Netflix provides an opportunity for users to rate movies that they have either rented from the service or seen previously in an effort to provide better recommendations. That is the secret to the system of course. Recommendations are yet another feature of Netflix which allows for a form of identity creation. Based on what Netflix suggests for me, I can somehow gauge what the system (and maybe the general public at large) thinks about me and my movie choices. Netflix themselves recognize the power of their recommendations system, though this appreciation is mostly economic (their year-long competition for creating a better computerized recommendations system seems to prove this). According to some statistics, about two-thirds of rented movies on the service come from recommendations. Hence, a user's experience on Netflix is not just about single-time watching experiences, but instead the creation of a personalized matrix of media preferences and consumption.


In conclusion, Netflix's significance in my life seems more about my personal connection with films and TV shows than my relationship with the service in general. I am 100% sure that a Blockbuster or GreenCine account would have been just as satisfying as my subscription with Netflix. However, because I began with Netflix (as many people have) it becomes more and more difficult for me to leave. I have a relationship with them; ever since the beginning they have kept a list of my rentals and ratings, as well as a record of my ever-growing, ever-changing queue. I'll admit this attachment is slightly troubling; some people might say that our dependence on these lists of favorites signals the increasing shallowness of our society, wherein our personalities become less about personal characteristics than what commodities we like to consume. However, with the increased availability of all these cultural artifacts, aren't we creating more complex categories that help us define who we are? Some may say there is a fine line between being a fan of The X-Files and a fan of Star Trek, but that difference does matter to many people. Perhaps, in the end, I would say that Netflix has enabled me to look more closely at my relationship with certain cultural artifacts. In looking more carefully at these connections, it seems that we are better able to articulate who we are, where we came from and what parts of us truly matter.