The Netflix Neurosis

When Kurt Andersen wandered into the living room at a recent Manhattan dinner party and noticed a stack of firehouse-red Netflix DVD envelopes sitting on the coffee table, he felt an instant sense of belonging. “It’s become this tiny badge of cultural brotherhood,” said Mr. Andersen, who’s been making his way through Netflix’s vast catalog of independent and foreign films for two years. “It’s one of those things that, when you meet someone who’s into it, it’s like, “Whoa-you’re a Netflix subscriber, too?”

In the mental iconography of the New York culture junkie, the Netflix queue has joined the line of must-have life accouterments. The kind of person who fixates on arranging just the right titles on his built-in bookcases or artfully stacking back issues of Granta and The New York Review of Books now spends countless hours searching the Netflix Web site. His Netflix neuroses requires him to add to his queue all the high-end movies that he never got around to catching at the theater-if not necessarily to watch them.

The queue itself, according to many Netflix addicts, has its own existential pleasure. Sure, you can only have up to eight Netflix DVD’s out at once-but with more than 18,000 movies beckoning you to click your mouse and virtually no limit to the number you can keep in your online queue, it’s not hard to see why Netflix has inspired a citywide frenzy of cinematic aspiration. Never mind the mundane reality of actually finding the time to watch them.

“It’s just so easy to keep a constant Netflix queue running in your head,” said Jodi Kantor, the New York Times Arts and Leisure editor. “All day long at work, I hear about movies I want to see-some of them are new, though some of them are older, and I’m constantly going back to my computer to add yet another title to my Netflix queue.”

Netflix also gives its cinephile subscribers the luxury of never setting foot in a Blockbuster again.

“I hector people to use it, kind of embarrassingly,” said Robert Levine, a former senior editor at Wired , now a freelance writer. “A friend of mine was complaining she was late in returning a DVD to Blockbuster, and I was like, ‘Why would you want someone charging you a late fee?’ It’s not like the late fees are so financially onerous, but they send you a notice that it’s late in the mail. And then you have to go in and pay. If they could just take the fucking late fee from my credit card, it’d be fine. But then you have to go into the store and wait in line again. I mean, it’s like getting in trouble with the library. I don’t understand why anyone puts up with it.”

Indeed, without the tyranny of a Blockbuster late fee, Netflix has two million users fervently clicking away, desperately trying to fill their cinematic void. New York, now practically devoid of art-house movie-theaters, has been fertile territory for the West Coast company: The New York subscriber base is now Netflix’s third biggest, behind L.A. and San Francisco.

But is the Netflix obsession just a case of the right technology meeting the right neuroses at just the right, fleeting moment? Is it destined to be a brief affair once digital cable brings video-on-demand into every household?

“The ultimate destination, the end point of the trend, will be all movies available at any time. That’s scarier, somehow. Which is where we’re heading,” said James Gleick, the author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything . “The right way to think about Netflix is as a way-station on the road to unlimited access to content. It’s not the final solution. There’s something inelegant about the idea of putting the movies in envelopes and sending them across the country, and burning jet fuel to deliver bits to you. It’s still bits-and bits, in the long run, don’t belong in envelopes with stamps on them .”

For their part, Netflix executives acknowledge the next digital age we’re about to enter. Next year, they said, they will begin offering movies for download over their Web site.

“DVD’s are like the internal-combustion engine-at some point they will be replaced with something new,” Reed Hastings, Netflix’s co-founder and C.E.O., said. “That’s why we named the company Netflix and not DVD’s By Mail.”

For Elaine Chen, an ad copywriter at Wunderman, though, the problem is more mundane: When a friend at work suggested she add Netflix to her already overloaded entertainment smorgasbord, the thought made her cringe. “We all basically have a bottom-line amount of information we can handle, so I thought, ‘I can’t be spending any more money on this crap than I already am,’” Ms. Chen said. “If I already have a cable bill, you throw in my Internet and my TiVo, it’s $100 a month!’ So I’m like, ‘If I pay another 20 bucks for Netflix, I’ll just feel like I’m an asshole .’ It’s particularly bad because I really have an extremely frightening home theater system for a single woman. At some point, I really need a reason to leave the house.”

“Does Netflix reduce the chaos? The answer is yes, within the domain of renting videos,” said Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College and the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “But at the meta level, it’s adding another means to access something which we already have access to, so that people are faced with a choice they were not faced with before. There’s analysis paralysis-that’s almost an inevitable consequence.”

Some Netflix neurotics are painfully aware of their predicament. “I have Netflix, PlayStation and Nintendo, and Satellite Radio,” said Mr. Levine, “so there are a lot of things competing for my time. If you thought stacked-up magazines were bad, now there’s stacked-up TV.”

“People feel-like with Netflix, for example-’It’s one more complication in my life I don’t need,’” said Mr. Schwartz. The problem is especially acute with people who feel the need to make the best decision all the time-the people Mr. Schwartz has dubbed “Maximizers.” Extreme Maximizers are correlated with clinical depression, according to Mr.Schwartz. “Assume you’re the kind of person that needs to get the best,” he said. “So what does that mean? It means you have to examine all the possibilities, otherwise how do you know it was the best? The alternative is someone who is satisfied with ‘just good enough.’ You don’t have to examine all the options-you only find the one that meets your standards and then you stop looking. But if you need to have the best, the search has to be exhaustive. But it can’t be exhaustive in the world we live in. At some point, you stop and pull the trigger, and there’s this doubt in your mind: ‘If I’d looked a little longer or looked a little different, I’d have done better .’”

Like every technological trend, the Netflix queue has drawn the eye of Wall Street. Netflix’s stock soared 250 percent in the past year and reached a market value of $2 billion as the company sought to snag an ever-growing portion of the $4.3 billion DVD rental market. Its success has spurred both Blockbuster and Wal-Mart to offer competing services.

But last week, faster than you can say “Betamax,” the signs began pointing toward a more subdued future. On Thursday, April 15, the company released its first-quarter earnings report for 2004, and the numbers disappointed Wall Street. The stock plummeted 17 percent. That same day, in an e-mail sent en masse to subscribers, Netflix executives announced that starting in June, the company would increase its rates by 10 percent, from $19.95 to $21.99 per month for the basic subscription. Whispers were heard that older subscribers might begin to abandon the service just as new ones get harder and harder to hook.

For now, though, there’s a weirdly, mutually profitable match between New Yorkers and their Netflix subscriptions. “The interesting thing about Netflix: It brings to entertainment some of the appeal of getting something accomplished,” as Mr. Levine put it. “Like when I’m compelled to watch my Netflixes and mail them back and feel good about that. I shouldn’t, though. It’s not an achievement. It’s a freaking movie.”