Trapped in the Algorithm: How Streaming Killed the Chance Encounter

For the most part, I love the streaming age.

Sure, the business mechanics involved are sometimes frustrating (seriously Netflix, stop raising your prices), but as of right now, the pros still outweigh the cons in my eyes. Between Netflix, Prime, Hulu, and HBO Max, as well as newer services like Paramount+, there’s a massive library of content out there to peruse through, more than any one person could ever consume in their entire lifetime.

And believe me, I’ve made a decent effort at it.

There’s undoubtedly a magic of discovery to services with huge libraries like Netflix, scrolling through page after page and finding hidden gems. Granted, a lot of what makes up these content libraries are utter garbage, but there’s still plenty quality movies and shows to more than make up for it. And even if the thing you want to watch isn’t available, it takes about two seconds of effort to track it down. You can then either pay to rent it, or you can acquire it through… well, let’s just say ‘alternative means’.

It’s like the days of physical video rental on steroids.

Having everything readily available at your fingertips is great, no question about it. But it really only helps you if you already know what you’re looking for. Scrolling by in a digital library only gives you a synopsis and a picture to go on, along with maybe a trailer. In that way, it’s very much like walking the aisles of a Blockbuster, trying to find something to watch based on the cover art alone. It was fun, sure, but always a bit of a gamble. Sometimes you’d discover something incredible that you otherwise never would have seen. Other times – and far more frequently – it would be something that was, at best, mediocre, and at worst, absolute dreck. But you wouldn’t know until you got it home and started watching.

And that’s why, in those days, cable TV was the absolute best source of finding new content, due entirely to one little thing: Random chance.

That’s really the biggest loss with streaming: You can’t blindly stumble into something partway through. I can’t tell you just how many of my favorite movies I only ended up watching because I was idly flipping through channels, and randomly stumbled onto something that caught my eye. This works especially well with horror.

I love Army of Darkness. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. And I still remember the day I first found it, seeing an army of stop-motion skeletons slash by as I scrolled through channel after channel. It immediately snagged my attention, and I backtracked until I found it again. I only got to watch the last 30 minutes or so, but it piqued my interest enough to seek out the full thing which, of course only then sent me down a rabbit hole of Sam Raimi’s entire Evil Dead universe.

It’s one of the best ways to get spooked, too, which is one of the most fun aspects of horror films. I remember finding a Cat’s Eye, a movie based on a Stephen King story, one day when I was relatively young, and having the absolute living hell scared out of me by some little goblins living in a girl’s wall. This is a cheesy, fun movie that I’ve seen multiple times since, and isn’t something that I’d describe as terrifying. But in that moment, robbed of context, it nearly gave me a heart attack.

And I think that’s absolutely delightful. Kids these days are spoiled. They run almost no risk of blindly fumbling their way into something that traumatizes them for years, save maybe on YouTube (which is another topic entirely). Scares are fun! It’s what creates horror fans for life! My obsession with the genre springs directly from these childhood memories of discovering things on TV that I absolutely wouldn’t have been allowed to watch normally, often late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. One of my older cousins ended up tuning in to a showing of Bride of Chucky when I was about 4 years old, and it screwed me up for years. Seriously, I was scared of that little plastic bastard until I was nearly in high school. But that fear eventually turned into morbid curiosity, which made me sit down and actually watch all the Child’s Play films in full. And now they’re some of my absolute favorite movies!

Streaming services should have a ‘Channel Flip’ option that simulates the sensation of casually scrolling through cable networks. Movies should be chosen at random, and should be given to you at a random moment in their runtime. Make movies a gamble again! It’s fun! Let people discover things by happenstance, rather than by the calculations of an algorithm. Much like with our news in the digital age, people only seek out things that they already know or feel predisposed to. Cable forced you to get out of your comfort zone. You watched what was on, damnit. We need some semblance of that again.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people like their bubbles. Maybe aimlessly watching five minutes in the middle of a gory nightmare on HBO at 2 a.m. isn’t great for a kid’s development. But I turned out okay, right?

…don’t answer that.

Either way, I long for the days when our browsing wasn’t so structured. Introduce a little chaos into your streaming this month! Anarchy is good! Go to the ‘Horror’ section of your favorite streaming service and just pick something randomly. Even if it looks absolutely terrible. It probably is! But it’ll be fun regardless, I promise you.

And let me know what you find!

Happy hunting, and happy Halloween!

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