Ungenerous Readings

Recently, John Siracusa, Ars Technica writer and late of the Hypercritical podcast, wrote on his blog (also called “Hypercritical”) about Netflix:

This is how products and services endear themselves to consumers: remove everything that gets in the way of what we want. We want to be entertained. We don’t want to arrange our schedules around your TV show. We don’t want to watch commercials. We don’t want to be forced to use a particular device. We just want it the way we want it.

He went on to say “watching a minute and a half of opening credits before each episode [of ‘House of Cards’] can get tiresome,” and suggested that this, too, was a leftover from traditional TV. This is unquestionably a trivial complaint, which Siracusa mocks himself as “comically selfish.” It’s a minor sideline to the whole piece—yet it’s what I saw latched onto by a few people who should have known better.

Harry Marks groused, “What a horrible experience that must be, to have to sit through a whole 90 seconds of great music, Washington D.C. scenery, and the names of the people who made the show you’re enjoying on the device of your choosing at the time of your choosing possible,” invoking Louis CK’s famous “everything is amazing and no one is happy” rant. John Welch went off about how “hipster geeks” should go fuck themselves. He linked to Marks’s post. So did Jim Dalrymple at The Loop.

Their complaint in a nutshell: “Guys like John Siracusa will never be happy with anything you give them because they’ll always want more for less and they’ll always have something to complain about.”

I’m rephrasing that, but I’m trying to be fair about it, since my complaint is that they’ve unfairly rephrased him. For a start, Siracusa didn’t mention costs in his piece at all—

"Well, that’s what he really meant!"

Sorry, guys, but you don’t know that. What you know is what he wrote. “If he complained about that he’d complain about anything” is what you wrote. Not everything is a slippery slope.1

The reason this has stuck in my craw is because Siracusa’s piece has nothing to do with the tragic heartbreak of extended opening titles and I’m frankly flummoxed that’s the only thing these guys appear to have taken away from it.

By all means, make everything better and faster, but also find the things that seem like minor annoyances, the things that everyone just accepts as necessary evils. Go after those things and you’ll really make people love you.

There’s value in solving problems consumers didn’t know they had. Those are usually not “big” problems. They’re things that nobody objectively needs. They’re things that only whiny people would complain about. Sometimes, that’s okay. Sometimes, the whiny people are on to something. Sometimes, solving those problems gives you a license to print money.

Is “we want what we want when we want it” entitled? You bet it is. But at one time, so was expecting programs in color just because you had a color TV. Okay, now everything’s in color, but I have stereo! Give me stereo! Dammit, now I have an HD set, give me HD shows. And now video on demand! I know you can deliver that to me, I have money, now do it, dammit.

Yeah, I want what I want when I want it. If you want to call that wild hipster entitlement, well, sorry! Netflix calls it a business model. So does Hulu. And Amazon. And Apple. Call me crazy, but I think they’re on to something, too. Hipsters actually do have money, and actually do spend it on things that make them happy.2

Ironic coda: Siracusa’s desire for shortened credits is one most TV networks not only agree with but require now. They rarely run titles longer than 30 seconds. Many shows only have title cards and a few seconds of music; names just run over the following scene. “House of Cards” has an extended sequence because Netflix is consciously aping HBO, which has made long sequences a signature.

  1. "Well, you’ve got to remember that if you use a slippery slope argument once, you’ll end up using it for absolutely everything." — James Moar 

  2. Those hand-harvested badger hair shaving brushes and Aeropress-brewed civet-pooped single estate coffees don’t come cheap, you know.