Instead of being used and returned at the pace of cloth diapers, it seems DVDs rented from Netflix are often gathering dust, unwatched, in customers' homes, in what a posting yesterday dubs a "paradox of abundance." Readers suggested some reasons why this was so, and why this might not be a bad thing, in the comments attached to the story; read on for the Backslash summary of the discussion.Reader aiken_d suggests that "unwatched, then returned" isn't anything new for video rentals, writing
"Busy people hate traditional rental stores because you rent some movies, pay for them, get busy and can't watch them, and then return them 3 days later unwatched. Or, equally likely, you return them 6 days later and pay late fees for the movie you didn't watch."
"I could never return a rental ontime. It was more like a week or 2 after it was do. With the extra late fees added to the rental, it was cheaper to buy the movie. I just bought the movies instead. Of course, this was when I was single and had money to burn."
"Now with a wife and kids, there is no time to goto the movies. Netflix is great to catch up on the movies I missed. Plus, I can easily rent questionable movies like King Kong and Napoleon Dynamite without having to pay $50 to see it in the theater ($10 for 2 people, $20 for food, $20 for a babysitter)."
If there really is a "paradox of abundance," paying customers aren't the only ones who experience it; Brix Braxton writes that the same ennui affects the casual software copier, too:
"This reminds me of when I was a kid and had my first 8-bit computer -- for the first few months I bought all of my software one tape at a time. I would play the games, good or bad all the way through -- picking through every nugget I could find, playing some games for weeks on end."
"Some time later, I met a friend at school who had the same computer and offered to bring his disks over. Holy cow -- he must have had two hundred disks of software that I spent a weekend or two copying. That pretty much killed it for me since I didn't really have any pressure to play anything and since I didn't invest anything into the software -- I would just load a game, decide it didn't look all that great and move on to the next."
And reader bman08 says that "owning movies is even worse," writing
"There are something like 345 DVDs on my shelves at home and it would not, in a million years, occur to me to actually watch one... Those movies are for even later, after the Netflix movies. I've often found myself watching Pan'n'scan versions on cable of movies I own for this reason... the TV schedule provides a compelling reason to watch."
SloppyElvis renames the phenomenon of oversupply matched with underuse "Paradox of Consumption." He writes
"The converse of this paradox is also one. Accumulating as much of a product as possible to maximize the value of the monetary expense, even if doing so adversely affects your enjoyment of that product, illustrates a strange consequence of consumerism."
"The obvious example is that of the person who consumes far beyond a comfortable and enjoyable amount of food at an all-you-can-eat buffet. The value for the price is determined to be "volume of food" rather than enjoyment of the meal. Would someone consciously pay for a sick stomach?"
"For some, Netflix is approaching this valuation on "volume of movies" rather than convenience or even personal enjoyment/satisfaction of the service."
Writing "You don't want what you think you want," reader voidstin has some suggestions about the psychological dilemma posed by all-one-can-eat rentals:
"Of course we want to see Hotel Rwanda, or the new Almodovar film, because we are advanced, modern intellectuals. In reality, after a 12-hour day of re-factoring someone else's messy code, would you rather open a beer and collapse in front of Hotel Rwanda or Super Troopers?"
"The problem is Netflix (and TiVo) makes you confront this issue -- You have to send it back and quit on it. You have to admit that you don't want to watch Hotel Rwanda. You'd rather fast forward to the 'good parts' of The Girl Next Door rather than think about genocide. You are not the advanced, modern intellectual you thought you were. Who wants an existential crisis when they thought they were just renting movies? Is this horrible? Probably. So is alcoholism, but I bet you didn't cringe when I opened a beer in the above paragraph."
Reader Gadgetfreak supplies another psychological explanation for the unwatched-movie pile in many households:
"[T]he bigger and more complicated a decision, the easier it is for me to decide. Choosing a college: Simple. I went, I looked, and by the time I needed to apply, I'd already decided. Only applied to 1 school. (Graduated 3 + years ago, picked up a dual Engr. degree, and had a blast). Buying a car? Simple. I knew what I wanted. Buying a house? Simple. (Going on 2 years now, still satisfied)."
"But man... you put me in front of a vending machine and I cannot make up my friggin mind. I'm not kidding. I can't decide. I'll stand there staring at it."
Ackthpt suggests yet another reason: that a movie sometimes needs the viewer to be in a mood suited to it, and that it's hard to predict emotional states:
"[S]tuff coming in like clockwork isn't the way my tastes for music or film are sated. On impulse I'll suddenly whip out and buy an Etta James collection, because I like some tune she sang back in the days of yor or I'll buzz down to the Bijou and check out Superman Returns From Wherever He Buggered Off To, but I don't do these with any chartable frequency. I tend to buy music, DVDs or old radio plays to listen to on trips or when I feel like it. Having stuff come in on a robotic schedule just isn't going to work, no matter how good the deal."
Reader MagikSlinger lays some blame (if blame is the right word) on the queuing system used by Netflix, which he compares to that of Zip.ca, which allows a user to set some movies on hold ("Park"), and suggests
"Arbitrarily ranking the queue (which I understand Netflix allows) is handy if you know you're going to watch things, but maybe they need to ask the user: I really want to watch this, I wouldn't mind watching this, and 'Eh, a friend told me i should watch it.'"
Reader Quiet_Desperation wants to know why anyone should be so worked up about a choice that's all about luxuries in the first place. He writes
"My job has been very busy lately, and Elder Scrolls IV wandered into my life, so I simply cut back my Netflix account to two out at a time down from four. I can just about slip in two movies a week. If I can't do that, I'll cut back to one. There's also the 'rip to hard drive' option to backlog films."
"Feeling "pressure" to watch a movie? What would these "paradox of abundance" sufferers do if they had to go out and hunt a woolly mammoth for dinner? Cripes, take a Paxil or something."
(One reader's response: "I'm pretty much sure they'd starve to death -- the woolly mammoths have been real scarce this year.")
Dephex Twin, too, wants to know What's the problem?, and writes:
"I don't really see what's so bad about this. It's there, and maybe you get around to watching it and maybe you don't."
"One positive thing that I have noticed since I started Netflix is that I watch a lot less movies that I *don't* care about much. Back when I used to go to the video store, I might have a few movies in mind, and maybe these movies would be in, or not, or maybe I remember my mental list, or maybe not. But at that point, I've driven to the video store, so I'm leaving with at least one movie. So, I spend 45 minutes to finally decide on something that I don't even care about, just so my trip wasn't a total loss."
SydShamino takes a different tack, and writes that he's "been watching more movies that I really don't care about. With rentals, it's hard to pay good money for crap movies like 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (currently at the top of my queue). With Netflix, though, assuming I watch and turn it relatively quickly, I'm only paying $0.80 or so for the rental -- and that money is hidden away in a monthly fee that I pay anyway. Given that my tastes wander enough to appreciate B, C, and D-grade science fiction, this is a good deal."