Could Solving Loneliness Be Streaming TV's Next Innovation?
Netflix is the subject of envy for many companies today. The popular streaming service posted $16 billion in revenue in 2018 and has upwards of 151 million subscribers globally. It attracts some of the most creative minds in entertainment and is known for some of today's most buzzworthy shows and movies, including Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why and Breaking Bad. It’s really no wonder Hulu, Amazon, Disney and Apple all want a piece of the streaming pie.
As an entrepreneur and TV lover, I share everyone’s appreciation for Netflix and the streaming market it pioneered. Like many people, I can’t imagine my life without it. Catching my favorite shows — and occasionally bingeing on them — is certainly something I look forward to at the end of a busy week.
But as a technologist, I have some reservations about Netflix and its impact on society. Don’t get me wrong: the company’s streaming service is a brilliant technological achievement. The clever way it utilizes data to continually improve its technology and deliver a seamless, personalized user experience is impressive. It’s what many other companies may consider the Holy Grail of innovation.
That said, if you look at the societal impact of Netflix, some concerns naturally emerge. Yes, the service has become a pop-culture phenomenon, but the company’s undeniable success is also inadvertently contributing to one of the biggest problems we have today: loneliness.
A 2019 study found that for the most part, streaming shows is a solo activity. In a survey of more than 300 U.S. consumers, 45 percent of streaming users report watching shows on their own; 23 percent report doing so with friends and family. This is in contrast to the prestreaming era, when families gathered around the TV set at a specific time and engaged in watercooler talk the next day.
Additionally, streaming is replacing other activities, including social ones. Thirteen percent of streaming users reported that they spend less time with their family to carve out more time for their favorite shows, and 12 percent report hanging out less with their friends.
If you’re a streaming user, I bet these stats don’t really surprise you. But these trends are very concerning if you consider that the rates of loneliness have doubled in the U.S. since the 1980s. Millennials and those in Gen Z are the biggest victims of the loneliness epidemic.
Of course, it’s not fair to put the blame on Netflix alone. Loneliness is a multifactor problem. Many researchers point to social media and the FOMO culture it has cultivated as another big culprit. A growing body of evidence shows that there’s a correlation between how much time people spend on social media and how lonely they are.
As an entrepreneur, I hold an abundant and optimistic view of technology. I believe technology can bring enormous value to businesses and the consumers they serve. More important, I believe technologies should improve society. This point of view is why I’m mostly optimistic that soon we’ll see companies create technologies and experiences that will help people connect in more authentic ways and help them enrich their lives.
Really, the technology industry doesn’t have any choice but to help address the loneliness epidemic. The need to find your tribe and to belong is innate in every human. It’s in our DNA — a requirement for survival. More consumers are becoming aware of the impact of tech addiction to their social lives, so we’re bound to see more pressure on tech companies to do something about the loneliness issue.
To some extent, we’re already seeing glimpses of change. Apple’s usage metrics are an attempt to help consumers make educated decisions about how much time they want to spend on their phones. Facebook’s Watch Party feature as an attempt to transform online video watching into a more social experience. Netflix's experimentation with interactive content is also interesting in that it’s a small step toward getting audiences more actively engaged with the content they're consuming.
But there’s still much to be done. To drive real change, innovators should go back to basics and bring the fundamentals of human relationships to the technologies we’re building. We need to look at how people want to connect with each other and build technologies that mirror those interactions and foster relationships. This could be as simple as embedding technology that lets people chat with other viewers in real time within a streaming app — something more seamless and engaging than a subreddit or a Facebook group.
Another potential solution has nothing to do with technology at all. Why not extend the experience offline? What if streaming services introduced physical spaces for people to assemble and geek out on their favorite shows? If there was an opportunity for my wife and me to join a tribe of Stranger Things fans and meet in person, we’d be in!
Content creators also have an opportunity to draw people together. What if rather than creating content that turns people into passive viewers, there were opportunities to get them more involved and connected with others? This could be as simple as allowing people to customize their viewing experience (similar to Netflix's "Bandersnatch" experiment), or it could be something bigger such as letting an exclusive community of superfans chat with each other to shape the story.
The increasing awareness of the loneliness problem means that the next big opportunity in technology is in helping create real, lasting connections. We can — and should — help foster relationships and bring back the human element to the way we do business. This is what I’m trying to do for market research, and I hope it’s what other entrepreneurs are doing in their chosen fields as well.
Brands like Netflix, Facebook and Instagram created huge, disruptive businesses by commanding people’s attention. But consumers want and deserve more. The companies that listen to consumers today and deliver on people’s need for genuine connection are set to lead the next phase of innovation — and build the next businesses that will transform their industries.