Box-sets are a 21st Century phenomenon. It started with DVD’s and now, with our lightning-speed internet connections, we can stream hours of movies and TV shows whenever and wherever we want.
As Bim Adewunmi puts it in her article on the New Statesman, ‘There is no joy quite like that which is to be found at 1.30am, as you bargain with yourself about how many more episodes you can watch and still be productive in the morning.” While a study by Blinkbox found that 33% are likely to get less sleep when hooked on a box-set. 61% feel compelled to watch more than one episode at a time and, most worryingly over one in five (21%) said they would rather watch a box-set than have sex.
The format of the box set has grown to such a magnitude that companies such as Netflix have started releasing whole seasons in one upload. It seems then that the buildup of anticipation between episodes will be lost. In its place is waking up having only 3 hours sleep because we couldn’t sleep without knowing how season 4 of ‘24’ ends.
What is it that has captivated us and keeps us so hooked that we feel compelled to binge and watch episode after episode? With the detriment being on our social and work lives.
To give a rather crude definition ‘Instant gratification’ is the opposite of what we’ve been taught and try too hard to practice — delayed gratification. Waiting is hard, and there is an innate desire to have what we want when we want it, which is usually without any delay. Essentially tapping into the human desire for pleasure.
As Neil Patel says in The Entrepreneur; “Technological excess has arguably become the norm and ‘binge watching’ of television (via ‘on demand’ services and/or DVDs) is simply a sign of the times; which he attributes because of the move towards an instant culture in which individuals expect to receive instant gratification in almost any situation.“
In essence we want it all and we want it now! For the first time we are no longer at the mercy of television companies in order to get our fix but we have control over when and how we watch media. With the invention of mobile information technology we have become accustomed to instant hits of dopamine, more of the time and crucially, whenever we want it.
As I have discussed in my blog post Analogue World Digital Time, we are expected to work at the speed and time frame of computers, working later and later while multitasking in order to be in front of our competition. However we have indoctrinated this way of working and passed it onto our free time also, whether that be talking to a friend whilst reading a message, or on your phone or watching 5 episodes of a box-set until 3am, even though we have to get up early for work.
In this regard then, box-sets are a reflection of the society we live in, always on, consuming data in as quick a time as possible.
As Jamie Fewery noted in his The Times article ‘The immediate consumption of an entire product, be it a series, a book or a game, feeds into a warped modern idea that faster and quicker is better. Time has become an obstacle that prevents you from knowing what happens next.’
I feel however that’s only part of the story. In order for time to be such a prevalent factor there needs to be something else going on, in essence a connection, something to keep us engrossed in the story to compel us to come back; a connection.
I see two major factors in this regard, them being…
Collecting ones self image:
I think a good place to start is to notice the parallels between collecting and binge watching such as the study by Dr. Ruth Formanek. Singled out common factors about the collection of items which make up our social identity, such as relating to others, acquiring knowledge which can all lead to forming an addiction or compulsion, while Dr. Susan Pearce’s book, Museums, Objects, and Collections continues along this vein of thought but sees it affecting and influencing us on a more personal level, for example, the objects we collect having a worldly meaning for the individual collecting. Relating these theories of collecting to box-sets there are some clear parallels with these theories.
‘The informal boxset economy is a crucial enabler of modern cultural conversation’ It gives us a connection with others in which we can relate, linking back to Dr. Ruth Formanek thoughts of the social impact of collections.
People are collecting the experience of having seen a box-set and reel off what they have seen almost like a CV. It seems then that the type of box-sets that we watch gives us a certain standing within the group or even society that others read into – for example the Mad Men, Sopranos, Suits boxsetter. It is almost like a badge that others judge us by within society and, in turn, we judge others by. Linking back to Dr. Susan Pearce’s notion that the collection has a worldly meaning in which we relate to. It seems to me then that our own and others’ viewing habits give us a way to relate to others but also a basis for judgement and one upmanship; “What? You haven’t seen Mad Men?” Is something I have often been heard exclaiming whilst at dinner with friends.
A worrying statistic I found was that more than one in ten (11%) are likely to claim to friends and family that they have watched a box-set when they haven’t. We seem to feel the pressure then of keeping up with our peers in order to be preserved in a certain way, and in turn, not judged negatively or ‘lacking’ in some way.
Making friends with character:
So boxsets say a lot about us within society but how about how we relate to them ourselves? Just like books and films we establish connections with characters throughout the story. However a movie takes us a couple of hours to watch. The connections with characters on TV is over a longer period and more engrossing than previously experienced in any other media. We have longer to view the arc and development which may mirror our own, I know I have experienced a real loss as the end credits rolled in Californiacation. Hank moody had been in my life for 7 years. Then gone forever, like losing a friend or loved one almost – someone that I look up to, makes me laugh and can learn from (or his mistakes) on some sort of level.
What I am trying to portray is that a TV series allows us to become more fully engrossed in a character and connect with them more thoroughly.
Going on from that, by not continuing to watch the next episode of the box-set is similar to pausing that part of our life. A part which we have invested heavily in terms of time but also emotion. I would argue on some level, it’s similar to finding out the life of a close friend. We mirror that life and that world along with our invested thoughts and feelings have been put on hold. And unlike a film, there is no closure until the end of series.
It seems then that there is more going on than just binging on box-sets for the sake of it. It not only feeds into our need for instant gratification but also reflects our social standing within society and gives us a sense of connectedness, with the characters portrayed in an idealistic world we feel we can get lost in. Thinking back to box sets now how frustrating it is having to wait a week for your favorite show to be aired. Or a week to connect with a part of one’s self that we have invested so much time in.