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The Netflix-Twitter Complex

An anatomy of a corporate smokescreen

You’re scrolling through Twitter, minding your own business, and then you see it—that fucking ubiquitous red “N”—and you know you should ignore it, but you have to stop and read what it says:

“How can I paste this @brielarson video to my vision board?”

You don’t know why at first, but your hands clench. Annoyance surfaces in your skin, with hints of secondhand embarrassment and even a little outright anger—a nice, long German word would be so helpful right about now, you think. Regaining composure, you mouth the words, “Fucking Netflix,” as you quickly DM the tweet to a friend for some quality dunking and the sweet relief of knowing you’re not alone, not crazy, not yet. It’s not the cloying nature of the tweet—though it is cloying—nor is it the reference to a “vision board”—though seriously, what the fuck? It’s the principle of the thing that gets you. The way this corporate Twitter account worms its way into people’s hearts with silly memes and even sillier jokes, using its simulated personality—because a brand can’t have a damn personality—to put a smiling face on a corporation’s domineering agenda.

Lonely, confused, and horny brands are irritating enough, but Netflix accounts regularly tip over into ugly self-righteousness.

Netflix has been a pioneer of sorts in social media branding. In 2018, Mashable documented the company’s shift “from Bland Brand to Witty Social Media Acquaintance Who Cracks Jokes You Wish You Thought Of.” Netflix isn’t unique. The brand-as-meme generator is now de rigueur on social media. In their absolute commitment to the bit, though, Netflix stands alone. Anyone who follows one of Netflix’s many, many Twitter accounts is instantly aware of their—social media managers? paid interns? unpaid interns?—apparent mandate to be as meme-worthy as possible. Jokes about their shows, meme images from their films, often written in the first person, throw all sense of corporate distance out the window. Who the hell is the “I” in a tweet like, “I once flagged down my mailman just to converse with an adult human. #stayathomeparentproblems,” from the @netflixfamily account? Or how about when the @NetflixUK account tweets, “i have two (2) moods while watching The OA and they are ‘what the fuck is going on???’ and ‘ohhhhhhhhh’”? Of course, I’m sure it was insightful to learn of @NetflixFilm’s awkward sexual awakening when they (they?) tweeted, “When was the first time you wanted to crawl out of your skin watching a film with your parents? I’ll start: When Jack drew Rose naked in Titanic.” (Let’s not even get into Netflix’s Instagram account bio, which recently bore the exclamation, “It’s my vagina 🇬🇧.”)

Lonely, confused, and horny brands are irritating enough, but Netflix accounts regularly tip over into ugly self-righteousness, presenting a corporation with an estimated $165 billion valuation as a friend to the underrepresented and the downtrodden. “Netflix is not your friend,” wrote New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik in the headline of his response to the streaming service canceling their original sitcom One Day at a Time. In March, following a public effort by fans and the series’ creators to get the show renewed, Netflix announced, by way of an unusual series of tweets, “We’ve made the very difficult decision not to renew One Day At A Time for a fourth season. . . . The choice did not come easily—we spent several weeks trying to find a way to make another season work but in the end simply not enough people watched to justify another season.” Poniewozik fixated on that oddly passive phrasing—the choice did not come; simply not enough people watched the show—noting one “could write a book about all the complications packed into that ‘not enough.’” Given Netflix’s total lack of transparency when it comes to viewership data (they claim that’s about to change), it was a galling statement, foisting responsibility for the show’s death on a public which has no way of knowing what number of viewers would ever constitute “enough.” But @netflix went one step further still, addressing “anyone who felt seen or represented . . . please don’t take this as an indication your story is not important.” The personalization—that damn “we”—the gesture toward inclusivity, a corporate wokery wherein what’s best for society remains subordinate to the bottom line. It rankled.

The rankling wasn’t an isolated incident, though. In the weeks before the One Day at a Time cancelation, Netflix’s was already letting its two-faced social media presence shine in a tiff with Steven Spielberg. The Jaws director, no stranger to massive shifts in the entertainment business, was reportedly planning on lobbying the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to change their Oscar qualification rules to require an exclusive four-week theatrical release prior to streaming. This was seen as a direct rebuke to Netflix, and everyone from customers, to Academy members, to filmmakers like Ava DuVernay took a stand against Spielberg’s apparently elitist desire to protect “the motion picture theatrical experience.” The division quickly came to be one of representation, with the streaming service standing not only for mere good product, but an actual social and cultural good, giving a platform to the people usually denied one. With the backlash against Spielberg raging online, @NetflixFilm decided to weigh in:

“We love cinema. Here are some things we also love:

-Access for people who can’t always afford, or live in towns without, theaters
-Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time
-Giving filmmakers more ways to share art

These things are not mutually exclusive.”

There’s that “we” again. Since Netflix cares so much about access for people who can’t afford to watch movies, it would be fair to assume they plan on putting their money where their tweets are: by investing in broadband lines in underserved regions, or offering free internet services and free Netflix subscriptions for low-income people (earlier this year, Netflix once again raised its prices). Perhaps they could loosen contracts to allow writers and directors more control over where their work is distributed. Or maybe they could allow One Day at a Time to go to another streaming service for a renewal. At the very least they could pay a little more than $0 in in federal and state taxes next year. Surely those initiatives are all on deck for their next earnings call.

Netflix isn’t a charity, though. They’re not even a normal corporation, frankly. Netflix, like many other highly valuated Silicon Valley ventures, isn’t content to offer a good product or make a decent profit. They have monopolistic, or oligopolistic, designs. Spielberg’s reported approach may have been off-base, but his concern over Netflix’s willingness to singlehandedly crush the entire theatrical exhibition industry for the sake of its own business model was right on the mark. Every action Netflix takes must be understood as a function of their corporate vision: one in which every person on the planet with a bank account is paying them a monthly fee for a bottomless catalogue of content fed by algorithms and features purpose-built for endless binging. The righteous stands on Twitter, the paeans to new voices and diverse representation, all serve that monomaniacal goal. Culture writer Isaac Butler described Netflix’s social media persona as “working hard to make people feel seen, but only in order to benefit themselves.” Funny memes and tweets trumpeting diversity are a means to a capitalist end, and they’re increasingly tiresome—even troubling.

Few things scream “troubling” more than Donald Trump’s Department of Justice stepping into the fray. Last week, the DOJ reportedly sent a letter to the Academy warning that any move to change their Oscars qualification rules “may raise antitrust concerns.” There’s no indication that Netflix was knockin’ on the Trump Administration’s door to send Hollywood a message, but it’s not hard to imagine the possibility. It’s not like Netflix has a problem cozying up to the nastiest arm of Trump’s political apparatus—on the down-low, of course. The day before news of the antitrust letter broke, ICE’s official account tweeted about the Netflix original documentary The Legend of Cocaine Island. “ICE HSI takes drug trafficking seriously,” the tweet read, “The Legend of Cocaine documentary film on @netflix highlights the agency’s commitment to deter and disrupt illicit drugs from making it into our communities. #CocaineIsland.” That one didn’t get a retweet from Netflix.

With little transparency, Netflix casts New Age digital advertising and public relations as a good cause.

Sometimes Netflix crosses troubling lines more publicly. In March, a Twitter user named Joe Gil replied in classic online misogynist fashion to a @NetflixFilm tweet sharing the trailer for Brie Larson’s directorial debut Unicorn Store. Rather than let it lie, @NetflixFilm replied directly with a list of Larson’s accomplishments plainly designed to go viral. Several days later, it did go viral, when Larson herself retweeted it with the comment “NETFLEX”—I’ll be right back, just vomiting again. The callout resulted in Gil temporarily locking his Twitter account, and many on Twitter relished those just desserts, apparently unperturbed by the flagrant display of woke-tweet-as-bullying by a corporate entity. In an ensuing back-and-forth on Twitter, NPR critic Linda Holmes defended both Larson and Netflix, tweeting at me that, “Honestly, it would be nice if more organizations backed up their creatives when they were subjected to harassment, provided they’re not abusive.” A nice thought, in theory, but in an era where massive corporations dominate the entertainment landscape, and journalists are losing jobs left and right to corporate consolidation and malfeasance, it seemed disconcerting that a critic would treat Netflix as a benevolent actor.

But then, that’s the image Netflix fosters. Take a recent thread of tweets from the @NetflixFilm account giving followers a “Quick PSA” on the term “chick flicks” and its problematic connotations. “You don’t hear people asking to watch ‘man movies’—instead, pretty much every intersection of genre is on the table and seen as for men, except of course, the aforementioned rom-coms,” the account wrote, quite rightly I might add. The tweets didn’t go over particularly well, with Netflix getting a good ol’ dunking from people easily seeing through their corporate bullshit. And as one user helpfully pointed out, at the same time they were tweeting their noble screed, Netflix actually had a content category on their actual service called “Chick Flick.” It has since been removed.

Netflix’s attempts to appear woke on Twitter look even queasier when issues of race are involved. Take the @strongblacklead account, one of several Netflix accounts that doesn’t have “Netflix” in its handle. Other than the big red “N” on its display picture, the account gives little overt indication that it is even associated with Netflix. This particular account is ostensibly a feed promoting the work of black artists on-screen, but as with any brand account its inherent goal is drawing eyeballs and dollars to Netflix as the destination for that content. Last fall, Netflix got into some hot water when some black customers noticed the app was using promotional images featuring tertiary black characters to target them. Netflix denied the claims, telling the New York Times that they don’t use any sort of racial targeting in their algorithms, and explaining, “The only information we use is a member’s viewing history.” Anyway, how could a company with that @strongblacklead account be racist?—let’s just ignore the Netflix exec who was fired last year for saying the n-word in a meeting. As is, it’s not like Netflix has any incentive to make those algorithms public. People just have to trust them, like a friend with a really funny Twitter account. With little transparency, Netflix casts New Age digital advertising and public relations as a good cause. Somewhere overlooking a cliff in California, Don Draper just smiled.

Soon enough Netflix might be buying us all a Coke, too, for all their efforts to endear. “What classic film do you want to see genderbent?” @NetflixFilm asked their followers recently. “I for one would love to see Natasha Lyonne as ‘The Dude.’” An encapsulation of the Netflix branding ethos if there ever was one: a pseudo-progressive idea, wrapped in comfort and nostalgia for an older film recently added to the service, and promoting one of the company’s current stars—check out Natasha Lyonne in ‘Russian Doll’, also streaming on Netflix! And that goddamn fucking “I.” It’s a tweet nearly indistinguishable from that of any real human being on Twitter, except by that big red “N.” It’s depressing to wonder if that might say more about us than them in the end. Say, do you think @strongblacklead saw that ICE tweet?