Netflix’s “Shuffle” Feature is Streaming Content’s Final Frontier

You get home late, tired after a long day. You’ve barely got enough energy to reheat the leftover pasta in the fridge for dinner. You just want to relax and watch something while you eat. But starting a new series would be too much right now. You settle on The Office even though you’ve watched it 12 times, because it always makes you laugh as you passively follow along. But how do you choose an episode when they’re all so … familiar?

Now, Netflix can choose for you.

The streaming giant is experimenting with a shuffle feature, similar to those found in music streaming. When a viewer can’t decide on a show (or doesn’t feel like it), they can have Netflix serve up a random episode of a series. Netflix is testing the feature on its Android app and have said it may not be permanent. Still, it feels inevitable. Streaming “shuffle” is the depressing endgame of content seeping into our every waking moment.

Content is king, and we can’t get enough of it. It’s why Disney, Warner Media and NBC are creating their own streaming apps, and why Netflix is spending $15 billion in 2019 to stay ahead of the game. Original content is important, and Netflix excels in churning out its own shows, even if the quality sometimes suffers. But the greater variety of classic programs they offer, the easier it becomes to turn on and tune out.

People watch The Office and Friends over and over again because they’re familiar. It won’t disappoint because it’s already so ingrained. That kind of show is perfect to play in the background, filling silence while you eat, do chores or idly scroll through your phone. You don’t need to follow along since you’ve seen it before, but it still feels like spending time with old friends.

Internet companies are most profitable when they make our choices for us. Quicker and easier selection means more time on the site, which means more ad views. That premise fuels YouTube and Facebook’s autoplay video features and is why Twitter and Instagram constantly suggest people and hashtags. The more you keep watching and less you click, the more they make.

The content creep is so pervasive we hardly notice it. We watch videos and read articles while we use the bathroom, walk our dogs, commute to work. The services and websites bringing us those videos are incentivized to keep us hooked, even if it’s not with overt ads. Netflix may not have advertisements outside its original content, but the longer you stream, the higher the service can value itself. The more choices it offers, the more likely it is to have something you love and value—even if it’s a show that stopped airing a decade ago. We watch the same shows over and over again out of nostalgia and comfort. Watching a familiar show is better than having nothing on in the background at all because we crave constant stimulation and the lulling comfort of familiarity.