Wed, Sep 28, 2011 08:59 AM
On September 18, the CEO of Netflix, a guy named Reed Hastings,
sent to his customers one of the weirder letters you'll probably
ever get from the CEO of a billion-dollar company.
It began with an apology for the enormous price increase that The
Netflix Team had announced in late July. Quickly, however, it
became apparent that Reed wasn't actually going to do anything to
ameliorate the situation; Netflix wasn't reverting to its earlier
prices - he just kind of felt bad that people were so upset
(because of him), and he wanted to apologize.
The weirdest part was that, in the midst of
apologizing-for-but-not-fixing his prior error, Reed took the time
to announce plans to commit a way more annoying error - he wanted
to split Netflix into two separate branches, forcing customers to
deal with two companies in order to receive the same services
they'd previously gotten, conveniently, from one. And, amazingly,
the error was obvious to everyone who read the letter but,
apparently, not to him.
See, for several years, Netflix - which, as I'm sure you know, has
been the nation's most successful video-rental company for a while
- delivered movies and TV shows to its customers by two methods:
streaming media, which the Internet transmitted into your home, and
DVDs, which the U.S. Postal Service dropped into your mailbox. The
streaming media and the DVDs filled different needs - the former
gave you instantaneous (though limited) content, while the latter
offered way more choices at a way slower clip - but the two
services were perfectly integrated: from one website, with one
account, you had access to both inventories, and when you searched
for a movie, you knew instantly if it belonged to one or the other
and could choose which way you wanted to receive it.
Unfortunately, Reed has decided to break up these two
complementary catalogs: pretty soon, "Netflix" will deal only in
streaming media, while its newly created sibling, "Qwikster," will
handle the DVDs on a completely independent, un-integrated website.
So, I guess, if you like DVDs, you'll have to sign up again, redo
your queue, and, unless you cancel your Netflix account, spend the
rest of your life logging into two different websites in order to
obtain nothing different from what you used to get from just
This may sound to you like a minor inconvenience - and of course
you're right, but what I think really gets to customers about it is
that it's so obviously stupid, so strictly senseless that the
change almost seems as though it were designed solely to annoy us,
to show contempt for us. Netflix's stock, which traded at $300 two
months ago, now sits at $130.
If you discard the notion that the company is bent on
self-destruction, you have to wonder: what was the reason? Surely
none of the empty ones listed in Reed's letter or its accompanying
YouTube video ("When we looked forward at our business, we
realized: over time, DVD and streaming were becoming more and more
different" - they're not, and who says one company can't sell two
slightly different products?) had anything to do with it. Some
people have speculated that Netflix, having realized that streaming
media is the future, is trying to distance itself from its DVD
operation and will ultimately sell it off - but then, if that's the
case (or even just the general perception in the industry), who'll
want to buy Qwikster?
My guess is that some companies simply possess a cacoethes for
change, a belief that, even though everything may seem fine the way
it is, if you're not shaking things up, you're actually dying. You
must move forward at all times, even if "forward" is actually
backward (New Coke!). Witness Facebook's ridiculous new format,
which eliminates the option of reading the items on your News Feed
in a simple newest-to-oldest order; instead, Facebook now uses some
mysterious algorithm to determine which "Top Stories" to show you
first - as though anything on Facebook could rightly be called a
"Top Story" - and allocates other, ostensibly less important
information to a useless new box in the upper-right corner. The new
Facebook is more than cluttered and confusing; it's arrogant, and
everyone hates it. So why did Zuck do it? Why, moreover, did our
beloved IMDb switch to a hideous layout that takes great care to
hide nearly all of its content?
Well, I have no idea, but this sort of thing happens all the time
- think of that restaurant you loved that inexplicably stopped
offering its best dish. The important question, I guess, is this:
did you stop going to the restaurant?
One of the great Facebook pastimes, I've learned, is threatening
to quit Facebook whenever anything visibly alters. Of course, no
one ever follows through. It makes me wonder just how pitifully
devoted we really are to the corporations and goods and services
that furnish our lives - to the pizza place that stopped being good
years ago, to the TV show that ought to have been cancelled in
Season Four, to the IMDb and Facebook.
The other day, I was complaining to a friend about Netflix's
bifurcation, and he suggested I switch to another company - there
are other good movie services, apparently, and he named one for me.
And what surprised me was that, for all my rage, I actually wasn't
remotely interested in switching to a different service. I didn't
want anything new; I wanted Netflix, my Netflix, the way it used to
be. As long as I remember how much I used to like them, I'll
probably stick by them, like those people who continue dating
certain boyfriends or girlfriends whom they no longer love, just
out of attachment or habit or hope that someday the relationship
will magically revert to its glory days. I'm not exactly
sentimental about Netflix, but it's a part of my life. What can I
Lame, I know. As it turns out, I'm the reason companies get away
with horrible decisions.