Entertainment

Making TV social is hard. Will Plex get it right?

Plex’s new “Discover Together” feature adds a social feed to the popular streaming app.

A smartphone showing the "Discover Together" option in Plex

The company is adding a social feed that lets people share and discuss their viewing activity, ratings and watch lists.

Image: Plex

Media center app maker Plex is giving its users a new way to talk to each other: The company is adding a social feed in its app that lets people share and discuss their viewing activity, ratings and watch lists with friends.

The new feature makes Plex just the latest company looking to add a social networking layer on top of its streaming platform. Doing so requires walking a fine line between appealing to people’s willingness to share and valuing their privacy, all while actually improving the core service. It’s something other services in both music and TV have struggled with before, but Plex has a few built-in advantages over some of its competitors.

Similar feeds didn’t work for Hulu, Spotify

Plex soft-launched its new “Discover Together” feature as an opt-in beta test on Wednesday. People who join the beta can automatically share their watch list, ratings and watch history with friends via a new social feed integrated into the app. Friends can use this feed to share movie recommendations with each other, start group chats and add any title that catches their interest to their own personal watch list.

The intention behind the new feature is to give people another way to find the streaming content they love, Plex chief product officer Scott Olechowski told Protocol. “It's something that really doesn't exist in these ecosystems at all,” he said.

That’s not for lack of trying. Roughly a decade ago, companies like Hulu and Spotify tapped Facebook to help them add a social layer to their streaming services. Automated activity feeds were supposed to help people find the content their friends loved, but ended up being more of a nuisance, if not a borderline-creepy act of oversharing.

Hulu and others have unceremoniously ditched their automated social activity feeds, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying to make entertainment more social. A number of social TV apps unsuccessfully tried to bring Foursquare-like check-ins to video viewing. Spotify has refocused its efforts around playlists as well as the creation of social moments like Wrapped, and allowing subscribers to share both on third-party platforms.

Facebook itself tried to use its social graph to turn Facebook Watch into a service with TV-worthy content — only to pull back on content investments soon after. And a number of new apps and services like ZinBin and Scener are trying to offer content discovery through a social lens.

Plex has been social without calling itself social

Plex’s key differentiator is that it is already a social app — just one without profiles and feeds. Before adding ad-supported video, live TV feeds, Tidal subscriptions and more, Plex was primarily known for allowing people to run their own media servers, which they could share with small groups of friends. These servers were and are being used to stream all kinds of content, including DVR recordings, legally ripped CDs, home videos and, yes, also pirated movies and TV shows.

To launch its new social discovery feature, Plex is tapping into that core audience of server owners first. Once a Plex server owner opts into the test, they can automatically share their watch list, ratings and watch history with friends. If these friends find the feature useful, they can invite their own friends and grow the network organically.

One reason to start with server owners was that Plex didn’t want to leave newcomers forced to rebuild their social graph from scratch, product management director Ricardo Castro told Protocol. “It's very important for us to bring the entire network on together,” Castro said. “We wanted to start with a collection of features that would be immediately valuable to the people that already have friendships.”

Lessons learned from other social networks

Much of Plex’s new social features are being powered by people’s past ratings and viewing. The company’s apps have been collecting this type of data locally for years; Plex recently began to collect this data on an opt-in basis, and it has since gathered nearly half a billion related data points, according to Olechowski.

To get people to trust Plex with this data, the company is not storing any indication of where or how people may have consumed a particular movie or show. A Plex user may have streamed a title on Netflix and then marked it on their watchlist as played, streamed it from Plex’s ad-supported video library, seen it in a theater or streamed it from someone’s server — the resulting data looks the same to the company and anyone using Plex’s new social feed. People can also edit their watch history at any point or decide not to share it with anyone at all.

The company is also taking some cues from other social networks, both in terms of best practices and pitfalls. This includes a conscious decision against endless scrolling. “It shouldn't feel like this endless stream of content that you can never finish,” Castro said. “We wanted it to feel more personal, and less like an endless fire hose of content coming at you.”

Plex does have plans to expand its social features over time, which could eventually include public profiles and the ability to follow celebrities on the platform. However, Olechowski stressed that the company sees these features as value-additive, and not revenue-generating on their own. “We're not trying to build a social network to build a business around a social network,” he said. “It's really designed to solve a problem, not just to consume your time.”

Update: This post was updated on Aug. 10 to clarify some of the Discover Together functionality.

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