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Netflix and the internet of fads


By Shira Ovide


The hottest thing on Netflix and TikTok is entertainment that becomes hot, but not for very long.


A lot of people are watching the Netflix movie “Red Notice” right now, just as many of us were glued to “Squid Game” a couple of months ago. Before that, there was “Tiger King,” “Bridgerton,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Emily in Paris,” “You” and “Bird Box.”


Maybe you vaguely recall the week when sea shanties were big on TikTok or when you couldn’t escape seeing Alabama college freshman women rush sororities in the app.


One reason Netflix and TikTok are successful is their ability to create, fuel and capitalize on cultural phenomena that might burn bright for a short time and then mostly go poof.


TikTok and Netflix didn’t invent flashes in the pan, of course. But the infinite nature of the internet and online mechanics have supercharged the 15 minutes of fame.


“Some of us and some businesses will learn to accept that fame comes five seconds and not 15 minutes at a time,” Tal Shachar, a media and video game executive, wrote last year.


Nearly each day or week, there is a fresh piece of digital entertainment or an online celebrity mania that comes and goes much faster than fast fashion.


Netflix drives fads for wearing track suits or taking up chess. The Reddit mobs that tried to track down the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013 morphed into regular TikTok vigilante crusades. The viral internet celebrity machine of the 2010s feels musty compared with the rapid minting of online stars like the cranberry juice skateboard guy.


Why is this happening? I’ll mention a couple of possibilities. First, there is just SO MUCH of everything online. The good news is that this makes more room for new trends or personalities, and makes it handy for Netflix or TikTok recommendations to help us figure out what to watch.


The bad news is that it’s hard for any one thing to keep our attention for very long. I might love your Instagram photos but … ooh, look over there! Some other shiny internet object!


Second, flash internet moments are juiced by the recommendation systems of our favorite websites that reward attention with more attention.


People who saw those sorority TikTok videos made other TikTok videos commenting about them, which was a signal to TikTok’s computers to feed more sorority videos into our eye holes. Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, Facebook and many other popular sites operate on similar feedback loops that push more of whatever is being noticed.


It’s hard to imagine slowing down the pace of digital manias, so we might need to adapt ourselves to this reality.


When we listen to a song or feel outraged about something we saw online, it’s worth being mindful about the influence of corporate computer systems that reward and are rewarded by our attention.


And we may need to recalibrate our mindsets. My colleague Kashmir Hill wrote a compelling essay this year about the belief in the early days of social media that the longer our lives and thoughts were documented online, the less we would judge others by their worst moments. “Instead the opposite has happened,” Hill wrote.


We can still develop the compassion that internet optimists once predicted. Knowing that some new internet drama will emerge in an hour could make us resist being pulled into the endless cycle of come-and-go outrages over an expensive advent calendar or “TikTok Couch Guy.”


Even Netflix seems to have misgivings about relying on the sugar high of fast-churning online trends. A Bloomberg News reporter, Lucas Shaw, wrote a year ago that Netflix had been trying to rely a little less on series and movies that become popular and fade fast.


It turns out that it’s expensive and exhausting to keep producing entertainment that doesn’t endure for long. That feels like a useful lesson for our tired brains, too.

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