3 fixes for Netflix’s “What to watch?” problem

Wasting time every night debating with yourself or your partner about what to watch on Netflix is a drag. It burns people’s time and good will, robs great creators of attention, and leaves Netflix vulnerable to competitors who can solve discovery. A ReelGood study estimated that the average user spends 18 minutes per day deciding.

To date, Netflix’s solution has been its state-of-the-art artificial intelligence that offers personalized recommendations. But that algorithm is ignorant of how we’re feeling in the moment, what we’ve already seen elsewhere, and if we’re factoring in what someone else with us wants to watch too.

Netflix is considering a Shuffle button. [Image Credit: AndroidPolice]

This week Netflix introduced one basic new approach to discovery: a shuffle button. Click on a show you like such as The Office, and it will queue up a random episode. But that only works if you already know what you want to watch, it’s not a movie, and it’s not a linear series you have to watch in order.

Here are three much more exciting, applicable, and lucrative ways for Netflix (or Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, or any of the major streaming services) to get us to stop browsing and start chilling:

Netflix Channels

For the history of broadcast television, people surfed their way to what to watch. They turned on the tube, flipped through a few favorite channels, and jumped in even if a show or movie had already started. They didn’t have to decide between infinite options, and they didn’t have to commit to starting from the beginning. We all have that guilty pleasure we’ll watch until the end whenever we stumble upon it.

Netflix could harness that laziness and repurpose the concept of channels so you could surf its on-demand catalog the same way. Imagine if Netflix created channels dedicated to cartoons, action, comedy, or history. It could curate non-stop streams of cherry-picked content, mixing classic episodes and films, new releases related to current events, thematically relevant seasonal video, and Netflix’s own Original titles it wants to promote.

For example, the comedy channel could run modern classic films like 40-Year Old Virgin and Van Wilder during the day, top episodes of Arrested Development and Parks And Recreation in the afternoon, a featured recent release film like The Lobster in primetime, and then off-kilter cult hits like Monty Python or its own show Big Mouth in the late night slots. Users who finish one video could get turned on to the next, and those who might not start a personal favorite film from the beginning might happily jump in at the climax.

Short-Film Bundles

There’s a rapidly expanding demographic of post-couple pre-children people desperately seeking after-work entertainment. They’re too old or settled to go out every night, but aren’t so busy with kids that they lack downtime.

But one big shortcoming of Netflix is that it can be tough to get a satisfying dose of entertainment in a limited amount of time before you have to go to bed. A 30-minute TV show is too short. A lot of TV nowadays is serialized so it’s incomprehensible or too cliffhanger-y to watch a single episode, but sometimes you can’t stay up to binge. And movies are too long so you end up exhausted if you manage to finish in one sitting.

Netflix could fill this gap by bundling three or so short films together into thematic collections that are approximately 45 minutes to an hour in total.

Netflix could commission Originals and mix them with the plethora of untapped existing shorts that have never had a mainstream distribution channel. They’re often too long or prestigious to live on the web, but too short for TV, and it’s annoying to have to go hunting for a new one every 15 minutes. The whole point here is to reduce browsing. Netflix could create collections related to different seasons, holidays, or world news moments, and rebundle the separate shorts on the fly to fit viewership trends or try different curational angles.

Often artful and conclusive, they’d provide a sense of culture and closure that a TV episode doesn’t. If you get sleepy you could save the last short, and there’s a feeling of low commitment since you could skip any short that doesn’t grab you.

The Nightly Water Cooler Pick

One thing we’ve lost with the rise of on-demand video are some of those zeitgeist moments where everyone watches the same thing the same night and can then talk about it together the next day. We still get that with live sports, the occasional tent pole premier like Game Of Thrones, or when a series drops for binge-watching like Stranger Things. But Netflix has the ubiquity to manufacture those moments that stimulate conversation and a sense of unity.

Netflix could choose one piece of programming per night per region, perhaps a movie, short arc of TV episodes, or one of the short film bundles I suggested above and stick it prominently on the home page. This Netflix Zeitgeist choice would help override people’s picky preferences that get them stuck browsing by applying peer pressure like, “well, this is what everyone else will be watching.”

Netflix’s curators could pick content matched with an upcoming holiday like a Passover TV episode, show a film that’s reboot is about to debut like Dune or Clueless, pick a classic from an actor that’s just passed away like Luke Perry in the original Buffy movie, or show something tied to a big event like Netflix is currently doing with Beyonce’s Coachella concert film. Netflix could even let brands and or content studios pay to have their content promoted in the Zeitgeist slot.

As streaming service competition heats up and all the apps battle for the best back catalog, it’s not just exclusives but curation and discovery that will set them apart. These ideas could make Netflix the streaming app where you can just turn it on to find something great, be exposed to gorgeous shorts you’d have never known about, or get to participate in a shared societal experience. Entertainment shouldn’t have to be a chore.

This handy Twitter video downloader bot is now seeing 7,500 requests a day

Not all the bots on Twitter are spammers or democracy hackers. You may recall seeing requests to the Thread Reader app bot to “unroll” a long thread into readable copy, for example, and in more recent days you may have spotted Twitter users tagging a newer bot, @this_vid, on tweets with a video file attached. The handy bot (aka DownloadThisVideo) offers a way to download both videos and GIFs from Twitter’s site for easier offline viewing.

The idea for @this_vid comes from Shalvah Adebayo, a backend developer born and raised in Nigeria, and currently living in Lagos. Shalvah says he got into development back in 2013, during his final year of secondary school (high school).

“There was a kid in a lower class that people talked about in awe — ‘he knows programming!,’” explains Shalvah. “I had no idea what it was then,” he continues. “I watched a command-line quiz application he’d made, and I was impressed. I’d won a laptop in a competition a few months back, so the next day, I walked into the only computer shop I knew and asked them for ‘Programming videos.’ They gave me something on C++. I watched those at home that day and went back the next day to buy the actual software (the IDE). That was how I started writing C++,” he says.

Since then, Shalvah moved from C++ to Android development, then web development. He went to university and then quit, and began working in the tech industry. Today, Shalvah works full-time as a remote software engineer for an engineering consultancy and product design company in South Africa called Deimos Cloud.

He builds apps in his spare time as side projects, and has previously open-sourced other bots like @RemindMe_OfThis, which lets you set reminders by tweets, and TwitterThrowback, which is like Twitter’s version of Facebook’s “On This Day” feature.

However, the Twitter video downloader bot has become one of his more popular creations, and is now seeing around 7,500 user requests per day, and as many as 9,500 at peak times.

Shalvah explains he got the idea because it was a personal pain point. Internet access where he lives can be spotty, and the Twitter app’s video experience was not ideal. He said he preferred to download the videos to watch them offline, but couldn’t find any easy way to do so.

“I knew of a couple of sites and apps that did that, but I don’t like installing apps, and I didn’t like the friction involved in using a site,” the developer says. “Plus, I wanted an asynchronous process, where you could just say ‘hey, I want to download this’ and continue browsing Twitter and come back later to pick up your download.”

Plus, Shalvah says he saw a lot of other Twitter users asking how they can get the video posted in nearly every popular thread where someone had tweeted a video.

The bot, @this_vid, has been up and running since May 2018. After sending it out first to his own followers, Shalvah then began to point people to it whenever he saw them asking on a thread how to get a particular video that was shared. This led to its increasing popularity around Twitter.

“I think it really solved a problem for a lot of people, and that was what made it so popular. So there were quite a lot of people, both friends and strangers, that tweeted about it to their followers, and it just kind of grew organically,” he says.

There are some videos that @this_vid can’t download, because the poster — often a sports organization (e.g. The NFL ) — has restricted it from downloads. But in most cases, all you need to do is mention @this_vid in a reply to the original tweet, and you’ll receive a link with the video download in a few minutes.

The bot works by querying the Twitter API for the tweet data, and then retrieves the media URL along with a few other fallbacks.

Because Twitter is rate-limited, allowing the bot only 300 tweets every three hours, Shalvah made the download link for each user easy to remember at: download-this.video/Twitter_username. That way you can get to your downloads even when the bot can’t reply.

The bot itself is free to use, open source and supported through Patreon donations.

There’s some concern that people could download videos they don’t have the rights to through a bot like this, or publish them elsewhere and take credit. Shalvah says he doesn’t believe the bot is in violation of Twitter’s copyright policy, developer terms or rules.

So far, most people seem to be using the bot for personal use. But Twitter hasn’t always been kind to third-party developers, so it remains to be seen how long @this_vid will last.

Shalvah says he intends to keep @this_vid free and will continue to develop it.

Facebook Portal adds games and web browser amidst mediocre Amazon reviews

After receiving a flogging from privacy critics, Facebook is scrambling to make its smart display video chat screen Portal more attractive to buyers. Today Facebook is announcing the addition of a web browser, plus some of Messenger’s Instant Games like Battleship, Draw Something, Sudoku and Words With Friends. ABC News and CNN are adding content to Portal, which now also has a manual zoom mode for its auto-zooming smart camera so you can zero in on a particular thing in view. Facebook has also added new augmented reality Story Time tales, seasonal AR masks, in-call music sharing through iHeartRadio beyond Spotify and Pandora that already offer it and nickname calling so you can say “Hey Portal, call Mom.”

But the question remains who’s buying? Facebook is already discounting the 10-inch-screen Portal and 15-inch Portal+. Formerly $100 off if you buy two, Facebook is still offering $50 off just one until Christmas Eve as part of a suspiciously long Black Friday Sale. That doesn’t signal this thing is flying off the shelves. We don’t have sales figures, but Portal has a 3.4 rating on Amazon, while Portal+ has a 3.6 — both trailing the 4.2 rating of Amazon’s own Echo Show’s 2. Users are griping about the lack of Amazon Video support for Ring doorbells, not receiving calls and, of course, the privacy implications.

Personally, I’ve found Portal+ to be competent in the five weeks since launch. The big screen is great as a smart photo frame and video calls look great. But Alexa and Facebook’s own voice assistant have a tough time dividing up functionality, and sometimes I can’t get either to play a specific song on Spotify, pause or change volume or other activities my Google Home has no trouble with. Facebook said it was hoping to add Google Assistant to Portal, but there’s no progress on that front yet.

The browser will be a welcome addition, and allow Facebook to sidestep some of the issues around its thin app platform. While it recently added a Smart TV version of YouTube, now users can access lots of services without those developers having to commit to building something for Portal given its uncertain future.

The hope seems to be that mainstream users who aren’t glued to the tech press where Facebook is constantly skewered might be drawn in by these device’s flashy screens and the admittedly impressive auto-zooming camera. But to overcome the brand tax levied by all of Facebook’s privacy scandals, Portal must be near perfect. Without the native apps for popular video providers like Netflix and Hulu, consistent voice recognition and more unique features missing from competing smart displays, the fear of Facebook’s surveillance may be outweighing people’s love for shiny new gadgets.

YouTube rolls out autoplaying (but silent) videos on its mobile app’s homepage

YouTube on Monday announced a significant change to its mobile app — it will now autoplay videos by default when users are browsing the app’s home page, aka the “Home” tab. Fortunately, the videos will not autoplay with the sound enabled, the company says. Instead, the feature is meant to give users a preview of the video while scrolling through the Home section, so they can better decide if it’s something they want to watch.

The feature, which YouTube calls “Autoplay on Home,” is enabled by default. However, the app will introduce settings that will allow users to control their experience. Users can opt to turn the feature off entirely, if they choose, or they can opt to have autoplay only enabled when they’re connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Autoplay for Home is not an entirely new feature. It’s actually been up-and-running for over half a year for YouTube Premium members on Android. Premium is YouTube’s subscription offering, which removes the ads from YouTube while also offering other perks like downloads for offline access to videos, background play and access to YouTube Music and YouTube Originals.

Starting this week, Autoplay on Home is rolling out beyond Premium subscribers to all those who use the YouTube app on iOS and Android. As with most launches across YouTube, it’s a staged rollout — meaning you may not see autoplay immediately. YouTube says it will take a few weeks for the rollout to complete.

The company notes it made the decision to expand autoplay because it increases users’ engagement time with videos.

As YouTube explains in an announcement on its product forum (spotted first by Tubefilter): “previewing videos helps you make more informed decisions about whether you want to watch a video, leading to longer engagement with videos you choose to watch.”

The company also detailed its decision further in a YouTube Help video (embedded below) where it noted that autoplay’s launch doesn’t mean thumbnails are going away. Instead, YouTube will display the thumbnail first during a brief pause before the video begins to autoplay.

With the launch of autoplay, YouTube also noted that captions would become more important.

Today, the number of videos with captions enabled tops 2 billion, it said. The site offers a variety of options for captions, including automated captions (which aren’t always perfect), creator-uploaded captions and crowdsourced community captions.

It’s not surprising to see YouTube adopt autoplay, given that rivals, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others already do the same, as do some streaming services, like Netflix.

User reaction, following YouTube’s announcement on Twitter, has been mixed. Some people said they were looking forward to the feature, while others lamented that it’s now just another setting they have to turn off.

Tencent is launching its own version of Snap Spectacles

Some were surprised to see Snap release a second version of its “face-camera” Spectacles gadget, since the original version failed to convert hype into sales.

But those lackluster sales — which dropped to as low as 42,000 per quarter — didn’t only fail to dissuade the U.S. social firm from making more specs, because now Tencent, the Chinese internet giant and Snap investor, has launched its own take on the genre.

Tencent this week unveiled its answer to the video-recording sunglasses, which, you’ll notice, bear a striking resemblance to Snap’s Spectacles.

Called the Weishi smartglasses, Tencent’s wearable camera sports a lens in the front corner that allows users to film from a first-person perspective. Thankfully, the Chinese gaming and social giant has not made the mistake of Snap’s first-generation Spectacles, which highlighted the camera with a conspicuous yellow ring.

Tencent, which is best known for operating China’s massively popular WeChat messenger, has been an investor in Snap for some time after backing it long before it went public. But, when others have criticized the company and its share price struggled, Tencent doubled down. It snapped up an additional 12 percent stake one year ago and it is said to have offered counsel to Snap CEO Evan Spiegel on product strategy. We don’t know, however, if the two sides’ discussions have ever covered Spectacles and thus inspired this new Tencent take on then.

The purpose behind Tencent’s new gadget is implicit in its name. Weishi, which means “micro videos” in Chinese, is also the name of the short-video sharing app that Tencent has been aggressively promoting in recent months to catch up with market dominators TikTok and Kuaishou .

TikTok, known as Douyin in China, is part of the entertainment ecosystem that Beijing-based ByteDance is building. ByteDance also runs the popular Chinese news aggregator Toutiao and is poised to overtake Uber as the world’s most-valued tech startup when it closes its mega $3 billion funding round.

Weishi’s other potential rival Kuaishou is, interestingly, backed by Tencent. Kuaishou launched its own video-taking sunglasses in July.

Alongside the smart sunglasses, Tencent has also rolled out a GoPro-like action camera that links to the Weishi app. Time will tell whether the gadgets will catch on and get more people to post on Weishi.

Snap Spectacles V1 (top) and V2

The spectacles will go on sale November 11, a date that coincides with Singles Day, the annual shopping spree run by Tencent’s close rival Alibaba. Tencent does not make the gadget itself and instead has teamed up with Shenzhen-based Tonot, a manufacturer that claims to make “trendy” video-taking glasses. Tonot has also worked with Japan’s Line chat app on camera glasses.

“There isn’t really a demand for video-recording glasses,” says Mi Zou, a Beijing-based entrepreneur working on an AI selfie app. That’s because smartglasses are “not offering that much more to consumers than smartphones do,” she argues. Plus, a lot of people on apps like Douyin and Kuaishou love to take selfies, a need that smartglasses fail to fulfill.

“Tencent will have to work on its marketing. It could perhaps learn a few things from the Apple Watch, which successfully touts a geeky product as a fashionable accessory,” suggests Mi, who points out Snap Spectacles’ so-far dim reception.

Weishi had not responded to TechCrunch’s request for comment at the time of writing, but we’ll update this story with any additional information should the company provide it.