One, two, three, keep watching: Why autoplay is critical part of our lives

After reading many rave reviews, I recently decided to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, available on Amazon Prime. It’s a period show about a hilarious young woman’s self-discovery after her husband leaves her, in the New York of the ’50s. I thought I’d stick to one episode, maybe two, one evening. But it turned, as these things often do, into a marathon session. I literally did not have to move through the four episodes I saw in one sitting — one would finish and, sure as day, the next one would follow without any external input from me. Do I, then, curse the autoplay? Or do I bless it with all my heart for turning me into a bum (a very content one, admittedly)?

Inbuilt stupidity

The YouTube autoplay feature, when it first came out, was arguably the most annoying thing on all of the Internet. Its inbuilt stupidity was frightening. So, for example, if you’re listening to a classic by the Spice Girls, and the song finishes and you look away for a second, next thing you know, you’re halfway through a cooking video on how to best use Mediterranean spices. And that was on a good day. Like the hot water running out in the middle of a shower, or a raisin in a savoury dish, or a much-loved uncle turning out to be openly bigoted, the autoplay threw up unpleasant surprises in the most unexpected of ways. It was the worst, and everyone hated it. But YouTube persevered with it, for the benefit of seemingly no one.

There’s a music streaming platform called SoundCloud, mostly used for underground or noncommercial music — it’s useful for artists, as they can upload their music for free. Their autoplay, too, used to be a royal nuisance. The Artificial Intelligence guiding it — the algorithm — had perhaps an IQ in the low double-digit figures. Like, if I heard a random Indian electronic producer’s mid-tempo, ambient, easygoing song, it would invariably be followed by extreme, indecipherable metal from the coldest parts of Europe.

It slowly got better, providing users with better follow-ups. As did the YouTube autoplay, which now throws up loosely related (as opposed to flamboyantly unrelated) hits. In fact, YouTube even allows its users to turn the feature off, some five years after users begged for it.

User experience

But it doesn’t matter anymore. No one bothers. Because the autoplay is a critical part of our lives today. Streaming videos online — through Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, even Hotstar or ALTBalaji — is pretty much all about ease and effortlessness. The UX, the user experience. If I watch one single episode of one single show from start to finish, the internal algorithms of these platforms will throw a hundred related shows or films that I “might also like because [I] watched that one show that one time.” Their goal is to keep me watching, keep me horizontal and listless and utterly inept, for as long as possible. This increases numbers, you see.

That little box

The same way, as one episode nears its conclusion and the end credits roll, a little box on the bottom right appears. Within 15 seconds or so, the next episode will start on its own, unless you cancel the command. It’s great for a Sunday afternoon, when the burdens of the week gone by have only just begun to ease off, and all you want to do is lie in bed and stuff your face with junk food. In that sense, it’s most definitely a blessing.

But, the way I see it, there’s something more diabolical at play here. I recently found myself watching something online, on a platform which didn’t yet have an effective autoplay. And I was complaining about it. I was literally whining about the fact that I had to move my arm 10 inches forward, click a few things on the screen, and then move on to the next episode. Is this what I have become now?

Quite apart from the laziness it encourages in the name of ‘comfort’, the autoplay also affects my rationing of time. Like how I’ll occasionally open a live video of a band on YouTube. Once it finishes, I’ll gladly move on to the next suggestion that’s offered to me. And then the next. And the next. Next thing I know, the sun is out and the crows and pigeons are at it again. Streaming of videos, by its very existence, allows users to waste time with something familiar running in the background. You’re not doing nothing, but you’re not doing anything particularly meaningful or worthwhile either. An additional feature that makes us do even less is… well, it’s confusing for me. I’m torn between how brilliant and ludicrous it is.

The freelance culture writer from New Delhi wishes he’d studied engineering instead.


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