In Praise of Stealing Stuff

Last year, I told myself to pay attention to what I used my Netflix subscription for, and to consider strongly if I was using it for a month’s worth of media in a month’s worth of subscription. This reflective practice led to me stealing a lot more.

The Netflix model wasn’t fundamentally flawed to me. I could remember going to a video rental store, in my youth, and you rent a video overnight or for a week for a dollar; fifteen dollars to rent an entire TV series to watch in a month seemed very reasonable, by comparison, especially for a very long TV series. Imagine renting all of Star Trek: The Next Generation one video at a time, one dollar at a time. It isn’t that I felt I needed to use it a lot.

What I felt I needed out of Netflix, was, pretty simply:

  • For it to have something I wanted to watch, each month
  • For it to avoid making watching that difficult

And that was it, right? It’s not a demanding list.

Netflix did a pretty remarkable job of failing on both fronts. First, it often didn’t have things I knew I wanted. Netflix’s promise is a vast library of streaming media, including Netflix originals. If you saw a thing being discussed online, people would mention whether or not it was on Netflix, and you could go check it out. This promised opportunity fell apart as licensing in different countries came into the picture. Australia is its own region, which meant that distribution just couldn’t be flat. Right there, Netflix would promote things to me, then tell me I couldn’t watch them.

This also meant there wasn’t a unity for me and my friends. We couldn’t watch stuff together. They’d mention a show, say it was on netflix, put up a discord channel and… then I couldn’t watch it. This happened quite a bit, and the best solution was inevitably to pirate it, somehow.

There’s also the way that Netflix could make something unpleasant to watch. A lot of subbed anime was being subtitled in ways that I could tangibly recognise problems. That wasn’t a good product to work with, so I went to other anime streaming websites for it. It’s not like I needed to watch things immediately upon release, so finding things from older seasons was fine by me.

Then there are the ways that Netflix made the things I wanted to watch harder to watch. If you open Netflix up, it’s kind of shocking how bad the interface is for finding things I just want to watch. If I want to open a show and jump to the midpoint, or skip around, to check for something? That’s a slow, muddy process where everything is unresponsive. If I want to watch something later, I have a single ‘my list’ I can add it to, which I cannot search, and must scroll through in the same way. And of course, there’s the Algorithmic Recommendations, which…

I don’t know maybe I’m just a grump but algorithmic recommendations are often pretty insulting, as they try to show me things that show up on a scatter plot of my interests that somehow fails to find me. It’s not like I don’t give these people data, but so often these recommendations look to me like shows I don’t want to watch.

And then over these past few years, we’ve watched the Streaming Services promise collapse in on itself. Oh sure, the HBO Max thing is the big one, where shows like Infinity Train are being burned for tax writeoffs, but it was already falling apart. There’s a streaming service you can watch with ads that lets you watch, say, Columbo, but can I watch it in Australia? Nope. Why not? Don’t know.

At one point to watch the current Star Trek series, I would need to be subscribed to four different streaming services because they had all negotiated separate deals with my home country, and I would need to maintain an awareness of everything in those libraries that was separated from everything else, to make sure I wasn’t wasting money on redundant subscriptions.

And thus, the collapse. It is now more convenient, cheaper, and less likely to fail to just pirate media, and less ethically dubious. I’ll buy the albums on bandcamp or the merch at the creator’s store. Is it this sustainable? Probably not, I don’t imagine it could be.

But I would pay for the level of service I get out of ‘downloading a thing nobody is selling that I can search like it’s an ordinary file library.’

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