Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu: Watching and Sharing on the Web

I like to share with my friends. I’ll send them links to articles in Pocket, book recommendations on Goodreads, and music recommendations in Spotify. I’ll also post SoundCloud songs on Facebook, quote articles on Twitter, and email other articles to friends. All of these sharing methods augment word-of-mouth, letting me seamlessly share my experiences with others within or outside of an application.

What’s missing is the ability to easily share recommendations in the apps we use to watch TV and movies online. The word-of-mouth augmentation that social media provides is pretty minimal when it comes to TV and movies.

You can ask your friends for recommendations about what to watch (or you’ll see their posts online about what they’re watching) and end up with a list of shows or movies to check out. But keeping track of what you want to watch, and where you can watch those shows and movies, isn’t easy.

It would be easier to directly link to or share a Netflix-only series or movie with someone else. Click and watch.

I started using Spotify because it was so easy to share songs with people. SoundCloud didn’t have everything that I wanted to listen to (and my more casual music-listening friends didn’t use it), listening to music on YouTube always sucks, so I turned to Spotify.

It’s so low friction to share songs with other people on the service that it’s supplanted iTunes and Google Play and SoundCloud and even Youtube for native sharing for me. I want to be friends with people on Spotify just so I can send them music. It’s easier to craft a playlist and share a link than it is to send a mix CD to someone nowadays.

In the digital ownerless economy that we’re encouraging, we still want to share our discoveries and spread our interests far and wide…but when you don’t own something, you can’t share it as tangibly as before. You can’t send someone a DVD of a movie you think they should see, you can’t tell them to watch NBC at 9pm on Thursday night—because you may not own a DVD player, let alone any DVDs, and you definitely don’t have cable anymore.

But it’s just as hard to send someone a recommendation to something on Netflix or Hulu. The best way to recommend something to someone is still to say “Hey! Do you have Netflix? Watch Stranger Things!” or “Hey! Do you have Hulu? Watch The Bridge!”

Maybe that’s working for now. Maybe that kind of word of mouth helps raise the subscriber count for those services—being constantly asked if you have Netflix or Hulu might make you more inclined to sign up.

But what really got me using Spotify, not just opening it, is the social aspect. You log in and you can see the person- or algorithmically-curated playlists of things you might want to listen to, but those recommendations are often no substitute for a recommendation from a friend. When subscribers of your service can easily share what they enjoy with other people, you don’t just have subscribers, you have happier subscribers.

Netflix offers you the “Suggestions for you” based on things that you’ve already watched. But Netflix can’t know you. It doesn’t know what you watch and like outside of its service and offerings, and there’s no way to supplement the algorithmic suggestions with people-curated suggestions from people that know you.

As the internet exposes us to a plethora of things, sharing and searching become a crowded market. In a stream of noise, we turn to services that help us carve out enclaves of interests. Netflix thrives as a primary place to watch movies and television. Spotify thrives as a primary place to listen to music. The names are often temporary and shifting, but what gives them staying power is the ability to interact and discover new and intriguing things within our interests. 

But discovery is hard. 

It’s harder still to find the things that are locked down in walled gardens. I can’t search across Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu to see which one might have a movie that I want to watch. I have to check each site individually. This is a hassle for people who want to track down a recommendation. You can’t always do a web search for the show or movie name (or if you do, you might be more likely to find a bootleg site rather than a legitimate service you can use to watch it).

If you’re a group of movie and television buffs that don’t live near each other, you can’t easily share what you’ve watched and what you think others should watch. You have to choose an alternate interaction media—email, Facebook, Twitter—rather than share your recommendations and history of what you’ve watched within the service.

A simple option is using the permalinks built in to each service to offer a sharing option. Hulu already does this by letting you one-click share to Facebook or Twitter from the title page of a movie or show, but Netflix does nothing to encourage you to share with others. Neither service lets you share a recommendation directly with other users of the service.

Amazon is the dark horse in the streaming services. It strives to have a listing for basically everything in existence for sale (as far as I can tell), so it’s easy to link to just about anything you might recommend someone watch. Even if you can’t stream a show on Amazon, you can often buy the DVD, rent it, or add it to a list. Amazon isn’t the go-to streaming service for most people, but you can send a link to just about any show or movie from Amazon. Still, though—there is no way to share a direct recommendation to other Amazon users.

It’s understandable that none of the services have a native social option yet. A native social option is hard to build up and maintain, from both the people and engineering aspect.

Goodreads has a full-fledged social network that is underused (if used at all) by the users of its service. Spotify has a more passive option that would work well for TV and movie watching. On Spotify you can share what you’re listening to (with an optional private mode for the guilty pleasure songs) and you can send a message to another user that you’re friends with in Spotify or externally to apps like Facebook or Twitter.

Building something like this would have challenges.

Abuse is an obvious one. Any place you can interact with other people means that you might be subject to harassment or abuse. Any site that permits interaction with other people must also provide the digital equivalent of walking away from one person or closing the door in the face of a flood.

Adding social interaction to an already complex system of scaling, encoding, and transmitting high-quality video across the globe wouldn’t be easy either. How do you take a private account and add a social component? How do you find the accounts of friends to connect with? Would Facebook end up the most common denominator, a de facto social address book?

To obviate these issues, start simple. Add a share sheet to the pages that display before and after you watch a show or a movie to let people share what they want to watch, or just watched. Amazon has a share option, Hulu lets you share to Facebook or Twitter, and all three services have links that go directly to the show or movie within the service.

Track how people interact with those links, and make further decisions based on that interaction (and of course, by talking to users). If the links are most often shared on Facebook, an integration with that service might be a first step toward social. If links are more often sent in messages or emails, accessing a person’s contact list might be a better first step.

Native sharing in services like Hulu or Netflix wouldn’t necessarily be easy to implement. But you’d gain the opportunity to easily send your broken-hearted best friend the movie that helped you get over a heartbreak. Your sister can send you the TV show she thinks you’d like, but that you keep forgetting to look up when you get to your computer. You’d regain the connection to far-flung friends that sharing a common experience can give you.