Why do we binge-watch?

Most questions I ask myself start with the word why. These are the type of questions that slowly get me from being just curious to being mildly annoyed because I can’t figure out the answer. Earlier this week I binge-watched the entire first season of the Netflix original series Stranger Things in a couple of days, and started to wonder why people actually do that. You could just say ‘well, they enjoy it’ and shove the entirely pointless question to the side, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. So even though I feel like there is no real reason for me to find out about this aside from plain curiosity, I am going to try to find an answer. Engage analysis mode.

To start, let’s continue the train of thought earlier: Why do we binge-watch? Because we enjoy it. Although this is true, it raises different questions. Why do we only do this with episodes from the same show? If it’s just about enjoyment, why don’t we feel the need to ‘binge-watch’ three totally unrelated but great movies straight after each other. Say The Shawshank Redemption, followed by The Godfather, followed by The Dark Knight (yes, I took a look at the IMDb top 250 for inspiration). Or even with series: one episode of Stranger Things, followed by an episode of Game of Thrones and then an episode of the Walking Dead. Although it might seem fun to do that as a sort of mini-marathon, it doesn’t feel the same as binge-watching. I probably wouldn’t do something like that on a random evening just because I feel like zoning out for a few hours and watching something merely to enjoy myself.

The next step in my thought process was: Okay, but when I watch a show the episodes are continuing the same story, so it makes sense you want to watch the next part. Cliffhangers and such. Although this is true in a lot of cases, I have found myself guilty of binge-watching unrelated episodes in a documentary series and I’ve done it even more often by watching twenty videos on the same Youtube channel in a row. For both of these examples there isn’t any story line at all. What is it then that makes me think ‘oh what the hell, let’s watch another one’? To find out, I’ll have to take a step back and look at the similarities between all of these series, documentaries and videos. What about them gets me ‘addicted’ for a while?

The first thing I noticed is that everything I binge-watch has the same theme or was made in a similar fashion. If a Youtuber has several ‘series’ on their channel (like jacksfilms’ YIAY, Jackask, and others), I wouldn’t watch every video they make but just the ones from the same series. I liked the first video, so I’m looking for a similar experience. People don’t need everything to be new and exciting (or even super enjoyable), we just like it to be the same. From a psychological viewpoint, this familiarity also helps reduce the mental effort of processing the video: you know what’s coming, so you can prepare yourself for it and don’t have to think too much about what’s going on. And we really, really like it if things don’t cost a lot of effort.

Still, this doesn’t explain why I would want to watch that next, similar video immediately instead of just doing it later (when I might have more time to do so without postponing other things). There are actually a lot of TV shows and Youtubers I watch but don’t binge. Again: why? This is probably where the quality of the content comes in. If I feel like an episode was ‘just alright’, I might spend my time on the series when I’m bored – so I don’t have to put that horrible effort into finding something new – but I wouldn’t feel the need to watch it when I have better alternatives. The content needs to be engaging enough to make me look for ‘more where that came from’, preferably something that is basically the same thing again.

Something that also helps a lot at this point is that bingeing is a lot easier than switching around anyway. Netflix automatically plays the next episode in a series, Youtube has playlists and recommendations and if you downloaded a series the only thing you have to do is click the next download in your folder. It will actually cost you more effort to find something else than to watch the next video in a series. They’re all just one click away, meaning that if you really enjoyed something, you can get a similar experience right away. The way we watch video content makes it so much easier to give in to that urge of watching that ‘just one more’.

To summarise: if you want people to start bingeing your content, making it engaging and fun to watch isn’t good enough. You have to make sure that people know what to expect by using a theme or just making the video in a similar style, that people are aware there is more to be found and that that content is easy to reach. Look at what works, do that again. People are kind of lazy, so helping them be even more lazy by reducing the effort they have to spend in their free time will be appreciated. That way you’ll get them hooked.

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