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Play something: Netflix launches button for indecisive couch potatoes

Unlike some of its industry compatriots, Netflix shied away from curated channels and program guides.

Netflix Play Something button

Can't decide? Netflix now has a button for that.

Image: Netflix

Ever spent way too long browsing Netflix's catalog? You're not alone.

"We've all been there" Netflix Product Innovation Director Cameron Johnson admitted in a conversation with Protocol this week. "People have a really hard time choosing. It's just kind of a human problem."

To help consumers overwhelmed with choice, Netflix is adding a "Play Something" button to its TV interface this week. Pressing it automatically launches a new show or movie based on the service's existing personalized recommendations. And if it's not the right title for the moment, consumers can click to play something else.

The button seemingly represents a small update to Netflix's ever-evolving TV UI. However, the many months of testing that went into it show that the company is well aware of the challenges that come with building brands around original content from scratch, and the way Netflix implemented the feature sets it apart from attempts of others in the industry to bring a more TV-like experience to streaming.

Netflix began testing the "Play Something" button last summer. These trials included both A/B tests with millions of consumers around the globe as well as more traditional focus groups, according to Johnson. The result is a button that is featured prominently in three different places: the profile splash page, the sidebar menu, and on the home screen itself, where it is strategically placed in the 10th row of content, as a kind of hint for people who just keep scrolling down. "That is an indication that you are struggling to choose," Johnson said.

In early tests, Netflix was using the button to launch the last show someone had been binging on. Ultimately, Johnson's team decided to focus on new content instead. "It will always play a title that you've never watched before as the first title," he said. Aside from skipping known shows for the first result, Netflix's new button relies on the same algorithms that are also being used to curate a subscriber's home page.

Johnson painted the new button as a solution to those moments when you don't want to have to choose, but it could also be seen as an answer to a challenge Netflix has been dealing with ever since it began emphasizing its own shows over licensed content: Without access to known franchises from studios like Disney, Netflix is increasingly creating its own cinematic universes, often based on previously unknown stories and characters.

The company arguably has done this reasonably well, but getting people to take a chance on these new franchises is always challenging — even more so if the shows are from around the world, featuring actors unknown anywhere but in their home countries. A "Play Something" button can help introduce these new stories to global audiences by nudging viewers to take a chance.

With a more leanback-friendly discovery mode, Netflix can also appeal to recent cord cutters who are looking to replace more passive cable viewing. Part of the new "Play Something" feature is an option to switch to "something else" by pressing just one button, which Johnson likened to channel surfing.

However, the company decided against a true channel-based leanback experience, which has been adopted by streaming services like Pluto TV and Samsung TV+ to offer cable defectors a familiar interface. "We didn't want to replicate internet TV," Johnson said. "We want to invent the future."

Netflix is now looking at ways to bring "Play Something" to mobile, where the company plans to test the new feature within the first half of this year. For that implementation, Netflix may look to social apps like Instagram and TikTok for inspiration, with Johnson praising their take on video as successful watch-first experiences. "That is something that we should all aspire to," he said.

Protocol | China

China’s edtech crackdown isn’t what you think. Here’s why.

It's part of an attempt to fix education inequality and address a looming demographic crisis.

In the past decade, China's private tutoring market has expanded rapidly as it's been digitized and bolstered by capital.

Photo: Getty Images

Beijing's strike against the private tutoring and ed tech industry has rattled the market and led observers to try to answer one big question: What is Beijing trying to achieve?

Sweeping policy guidelines issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on July 24 and the State Council now mandate that existing private tutoring companies register as nonprofit organizations. Extracurricular tutoring companies will be banned from going public. Online tutoring agencies will be subject to regulatory approval.

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Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. She has spent six years covering China from inside and outside its borders. Previously, she was a fellow at Asia Society's ChinaFile and a Beijing-based producer for CNN. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. Shen Lu is a founding member of Chinese Storytellers, a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.

It’s soul-destroying and it uses DRM, therefore Peloton is tech

"I mean, the pedals go around if you turn off all the tech, but Peloton isn't selling a pedaling product."

Is this tech? Or is it just a bike with a screen?

Image: Peloton and Protocol

One of the breakout hits from the pandemic, besides Taylor Swift's "Folklore," has been Peloton. With upwards of 5.4 million members as of March and nearly $1.3 billion in revenue that quarter, a lot of people are turning in their gym memberships for a bike or a treadmill and a slick-looking app.

But here at Protocol, it's that slick-looking app, plus all the tech that goes into it, that matters. And that's where things got really heated during our chat this week. Is Peloton tech? Or is it just a bike with a giant tablet on it? Can all bikes be tech with a little elbow grease?

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Karyne Levy

Karyne Levy ( @karynelevy) is the West Coast editor at Protocol. Before joining Protocol, Karyne was a senior producer at Scribd, helping to create the original content program. Prior to that she was an assigning editor at NerdWallet, a senior tech editor at Business Insider, and the assistant managing editor at CNET, where she also hosted Rumor Has It for CNET TV. She lives outside San Francisco with her wife, son and lots of pets.

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
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