What makes something binge-worthy?

Afterthoughts: The Outsider by Albert Camus

Afterthoughts: Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

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In the time since quarantine began, I have binged exactly three TV shows: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Outer Banks, and Upload. It got me to thinking how exactly did these shows become so binge-able? Why couldn’t I binge through an online course? That would probably be a more valuable use of time. But alas, let’s start from the beginning, with the original medium for binging: books. 

The Original Binging Experience

Growing up, I used to be a voracious reader. I would tear through books at a rapid pace. Some of the series I adored included CHERUB by Robert Muchamore, Alex Rider by Anthony Horowitz, and the entire catalogue of Rick Riordan’s work, among others. Each of these series would have, at the time I was reading them, a minimum of five to more than 10 books. This reading phase I had lasted the span of probably a couple of years from 11 to 13. If I got into a new series, I would spend every spare minute outside of school and family obligations reading. I remember going to the bookstore two, sometimes three, times a week just because I had finished the book I had. I would argue this experience of reading for extended period, three plus hours, would count as binge-reading.

This story sounds eerily familiar to my behaviour when I get into a TV Show. I recall that I binged five seasons of Game of Thrones (GoT) in my first year of university during a semester break. That was a whopping 50-hours worth of content consumed in a week. I got into it because of FOMO. This feeling dissipated after episode four and I became so enthralled in the story. I had the time, the appetite, and the ability to continue watching, so I did. 

Deconstructing Binging 

My theory is that our desire to binge content is not new. This much is true given that we originally binged on books telling good stories. These days, it just happens to be more accessible in the TV show format thanks to players like Netflix.

Why do we read books or watch TV?

Most people would agree that when consuming content they want to be either entertained or learning something from it. In this analysis, let us stick with things made with the intention of being entertaining. If you have a free evening, a popular thing to do would be to open up your preferred streaming platform and watch something. Alternatively, you could set yourself up with a really good book. Another option is to catchup with friends. These three things share a common thread: you get to watch, read, or listen to various stories. We want to lose ourselves in stories, no matter where they come from. 

The Netflix Innovations

To understand how Netflix encouraged this binge-watching phenomenon, we must first understand Newton’s First Law of Motion. It states that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. In laymen’s terms, you are likely to continue doing what you are doing, unless otherwise disrupted by another force. For example, on any given day, you are unlikely to wake up until something forces you too. One force is your body’s natural sleeping and waking up pattern, another is an alarm clock or the pressure coming from having to be a work that day. 

When you consume content, you are unlikely to stop watching until something else forces you too. Netflix understands this, and they designed their service to get you to keep watching. You might go on Netflix because you wanted to watch something for a bit Netflix is designed such that once you start watching, the path of least resistance is to continue watching. 

The biggest feature that encourages this behaviour is the auto-playing of the next episode once you have finished with one. They only give you five seconds after the credits start rolling to stop this auto-play which is no time at all. They are trying to take the decision away from you, and keep you plugged in. The other key feature is Netflix’s portability. The mobile app is reliable and just as good as on a computer so long as you can tolerate the smaller screen size. The fact you can download episodes in advance further reduces the friction associated with using the service. 

Netflix used to be a one-stop shop for online streaming since it had the first-mover advantage. With the advent of Disney+ and Amazon Prime, among others, this advantage has all but been nullified. Compared to network television, however, streaming services were quite consolidated. One benefit is that customers don’t have to waste energy shopping around. This again reduces the friction to start watching something.

The Kindle Innovations

I would argue that these innovations have been made by Amazon with their Kindle service for reading. While many romanticise the reading of physical books, e-books offer a way to scale up your reading with superior ease. I have found myself racing through books, I read via the Kindle app. It is a different, slower experience when I read a physical book. 

Kindle has made reading more, easier. One way they do this is the infinite scroll feature. It mimics the learned behaviour of scrolling many get from social media. It’s only you and the story. I find it easier to lose myself in the book and lose track of time. My pet peeve when reading physical books is page numbers, my monkey brain always wants to see it go up, so it is harder to get lost in what I’m reading. Kindle does away with that. Access to books is also infinitely easier. The friction of spending an entire Saturday going to bookstores trying to find a book is a thing of the past. As a result, I have found myself reading much more.

Binging is like any other habit

It is not inherently good or bad. Its prevalence can be put down to the natural maturation of the book and TV show markets. Companies are just finding new ways to hook you on whatever they are trying to sell. To that end, anything can be binge-worthy so long as you are in an environment that encourages that behaviour. 

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