Sunday, February 9, 2014

Media Binges: The Good, the Bad, and the Library

We live in an era of a new media consumption model--the binge.  

We stream whole seasons in a day and knock off DVD box sets in a week.  DVRs and On-Demand services allow us to enjoy marathons of our current programming without (as many) ads or those pesky week-long waits between plot points.  Spotify and iTunes playlists deliver our music to us in a neverending cycle.  

And librarians are particularly responsible for making even books into objects of mass consumption--what else would you call our insistence that we cram as much reading as physically possible into each year? It’s bingeing at a slightly slower frame rate.

So what to make of this burgeoning trend?  Is this a positive development, a negative one, or in between?  And what role should libraries play in supporting or combating it?

I, for one, am excited about libraries’ ability to promote media-gulping.  For one thing, since it’s what people are doing anyway, it’s great that libraries are already equipped to mesh with their behavior; many of us have got respectable runs of popular TV shows on DVD, ready for plowing through, and we already do a brisk business in DVD lending.  Why pay for Netflix?  (And if you want Netflix too, maybe your local library can help fill some of its frustrating online gaps.)

Beyond that, though, I think that media bingeing is actually a positive development, and librarians are in place to mainstream it and its benefits.  My experience with reading, in particular, shows me that the longer a process is strung out, the more comprehension and command of detail suffers.

In an environment where even the most accessible of TV dramas operates on a serialized basis, and where your TV sitcom favorites undergo actual character growth and change across a season, watching TV is more like reading a novel than ever.  That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t really work with the traditional broadcast television model.

It’s been opined that Game of Thrones functions better as a season-by-season unit while some individual episodes suffer in isolation. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest the same applies for Breaking Bad, Homeland, Downton Abbey...heck, schlocky Revenge and Scandal are often difficult to keep track of from week to week.

So maybe for some people, it’s optimal to wait for the end of the season or for the DVD release, either for the sake of aesthetic appreciation or for personal viewer comprehension.  And again, who has those DVDs ready for free (and who is hot on the trail of various streaming access options)?  Don’t make me spell it out for you!

So, bingeing is good and libraries promote it--but sensible consumption is a desirable outcome as well.

Sitting in your basement watching all of Breaking Bad is a closed circuit activity unless you internalize lessons learned, share opinions, and rejoin the community with new things to say and new perspectives to offer.  Happily, the Internet provides opportunities for this kind of interaction in droves, and many consumers avail themselves of such things.  But a lot do not.

Librarians have a responsibility to perform, model and instill the habits of conscientious media consumption.  We need to write and post reviews, in our public and private lives both.  We need to call out positive and negative examples of media citizenship--applaud diversity and inclusivity; decry stigma and exclusion.  We must encourage our patrons to be canny consumers--introduce them to Goodreads and Getglue and IMDB message boards.  Inspire them to become critics in their own lives.  

If you want to get really crazy, promote the idea of tracking amounts and types of media consumption--with the goal of demonstrating growth in terms of amounts digested, the complexity of ideas encountered, and the types of genres and media in which fluency has been achieved.  

Why promote all of this?  Because watching TV and movies, reading books, and listening to music doesn’t have to be a totally solipsistic, zero-sum endeavor.  Exposure to ideas and events should change us, and we should be able to recognize how it’s changing us--the better to place ourselves in relation to the world around us.

(Slightly off my desired track, but important to note: the library is a good place to be a media consumer without resorting to thievery  Librarians need to make sure potential patrons know about the damage pirating material does, and not just in a self-interested “Don’t sue me, brah!” way.  Pump up the library as a legit conduit in the media consumption pipeline, much safer and happier for everyone than torrents or Russian link aggregators.)

And at the end of the day, even if we can’t be THE player in binge media consumption, libraries can act as the great leveler--as we so often have.  We can be the solid option for all those who can’t choose to own seven seasons of Lost.  As always, it comes down to social justice, and equal access to entertainment is no less important an issue as access to research materials.

(Truly, say otherwise and I’ll fight you.  Art is the way we know ourselves.)

I’m genuinely amped about librarians’ role in promoting this paradigm, and I hope I’ve been somewhat convincing on the matter.  My fear is that some self-important members of the new crop of information professionals will decide that access to binge-worthy materials isn’t “critical” enough to dedicate resources to.  I hope many will join me in talking up the import of this stuff as librarianship continues to evolve.


  1. I. Love. This.
    And, btw, the new format up in here is way more user-friendly...and that, too, indicates good librarianship.
    Also, excellent linked material--I appreciated each bit.

  2. Hi! I found this really interesting. First off, I had no idea that public libraries had movies and TV series on DVD! As one who doesn't have a Netflix account this is major news for me. Secondly, Mrs. C asked us to make a connection between this post and the Not-novel we are reading at the moment in class. The connection that I made in reading the blog post was that reading Voltaire's, "Candide", is very much like going on a binge of a season of Game of Thrones. All of the major events are happening one right after the other, without much of a wait in-between. I also found that much like a library adapting to the changes in its communities wants, Voltaire is giving his community what it wanted in "Candide". In an enlightenment era the general public wanted new ideas and philosophies and that is exactly what Voltaire was offering them.

  3. Hi, I was surprised to learn that some libraries, even the one in my town, have TV show series. I really do not watch TV that often, I follow only one series. While reading the blog and then the article, I realized that the one series I do follow, I follow because of the characters and the plot. I continually need to know what is happening, I'm drawn to the characters and their next move. A few years ago, my favorite shows were Full House and 7th Heaven. Those shows obviously had characters, but they did not change. Each episode was something new and you could see the episodes in any order. The series now are intriguing. My friends spend hours on Netflix watching series; it's crazy! I never thought about how much time and how many shows people watch in one sitting. This blog truly opened my eyes on how television and it's viewers have changed in the past few years.

  4. Well...first off I'd like to say that I found this blog intriguing . This post definitely strikes a cord with me in that I am that person who goes through binge cycles of downloading, borrowing, and renting TV shows. I've gone through cycles of West Wing, That 70s Show, Mad Men, The Tudors, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and the list goes on and on. The feeding and availability of this media, and the history/lessons/stories behind each plot line, becomes more and more available to audiences everyday. What's fascinating is who and what controls this media and what media is made available to certain audiences. Not all people take away the same ideals or lessons from a certain work, but allowing for the opportunity to be present is almost more important then the mere fact that the person understood the work in the first place. To connect this post to the enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, I believe a common thread can be made between the desire to make knowledge available to anyone, in this case maybe in the form of a library. I would argue a librarian doesn't necessarily have to be a librarian in the tradition sense, but maybe a librarian is just someone knowledgable who can assist in the even and just distribution of knowledge.
    -Nick Arcoraci

  5. Usually when I read online articles about the "modern trends" like this one, I go through and check off the ones that I am included in, and not included in. And I usually try to say I DON'T include myself, but well, I couldn't. Because in all honesty, as I was reading this particular article (and while I'm typing this response) Spotify is and was playing in the background. I don't personally find my "binging" of the internet's resources to be necessarily a good thing, but I do learn some incredible things, and I agree you him that it can have some positive benefits.

    I've always prefered reading books to watching online series, but when I do, I prefer to watch them all at once. The details do always end up getting fuzzy, because our lives get filled with other things, and though we tend to mull them over in our minds from time to time, by the next night we forget about the "don't blink" moments.

    As you transition into the topic of us becoming critics in our own lives it draws me back to a conversation I was actually having just yesterday with my dad. We were talking about the way artwork is portrayed by people, and how some may find one work disturbing, but in fact it's very possible it was designed by someone who is worshiping whatever the subject may have been, and in fact found the work less disturbing, and more beautiful. Or beautifully disturbing.

    I told my dad that with art, whether it be visual or written, there is no real limit. Though it may be disturbing, it is still art. Him being sarcastic in ever situation tried to pull one over on me and told me to "tell that to a critic".

    My only response was that we are all our own worst, and best critics in our own lives, and that I would gladly tell the nearest critic, but it may be redundant because I already know what I think and believe.
    This seems off topic, but my mind wandered.

    Before I go I have a confession to make. This whole time I thought it said "Liberation" rather than "Librarianism". Both make sense to me.

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  7. Nice piece, Alex. Right now the vogue "binge media" is television, but not too long ago, and still among some of my students, they like to take in massive amounts of films - I introduce Hitchcock to them, a few industrious ones want to watch another ten of his flicks in a weekend. I've found it especially troubling how hard it has suddenly become to find films, though. Many classics, old and modern, aren't readily available anymore - Netflix library is shrinking, Hulu's is either esoteric (which can be cool) or useless, and of course the place you used to go for films - the rental store - is largely gone. I'm luck enough to have a Family Video in Auburn, but in Ithaca, the major city where I work, there is just Redbox. Amazing! The answer, of course, is the library. Ithaca's is bursting with films, and Auburn's is respectable. And planning ahead, I now use only the library to access the films I need for class. Obviously, to get back to it, if someone wants to binge watch Hitchcock or Fincher or Kurosawa, I would point them to the library, Interlibrary Loan what you need, and enjoy. Even the fastest 3-disc Netflix account can't execute the binge watching of famous directors (especially for those on a budget.)

  8. I was directed here by Mrs. C and I am truly grateful for that. It was a really interesting, and thought-provoking read. I do agree with most of this post. However, the statement about how watching a tv show is like reading a novel is only true to some extent in my eyes (of course, you could argue that "Family Guy" is the worst novel in the history of mankind, but still a novel). For me, I've always preferred reading a book over watching a movie or a tv show. To me, reading a novel and independently forming my own opinion of what it means to me is much more rewarding than watching the characters in a movie/tv show spell it out for me. It's all about understanding it on a personal level. For example, one of my all-time favorite books is John Greene's The Fault In Our Stars. Before they even announced that it was going to become a film, I formed a very personal relationship with that book, relating events in that book to the events in my life. The best part of reading a book for me is the descriptive passages. It sounds really weird, but I love being able to fully understand the setting in which a character resides, the situation or the moment that the character is living in, and the profound description of the feeling that the character possesses at that current moment. I just feel like I can't get that with the media. However, times ARE changing, and I'm very glad that libraries are able to be a part of the changing times. I guess I'm just old school, but with reading, you're allowed to bring a little something more involved to the table instead of becoming a permanent fixture on the couch.

    1. No, actually, Brianne, that would qualify as a "not-novel," akin to CANDIDE, the stuff of OLD-SCHOOL formulaic programming. It's not like that kind of show disappeared when The Sopranos took to the air; in fact, it is still well-entrenched.

  9. I had never known that libraries had entire seasons of shows until reading this article and listening to some kids talk last class. I think it is extremely important that the libraries are doing this because they are adapting with time to stay current. Not as many people go to libraries when they can just download a book on their Kindle or read it online. I think that by providing these seasons they are keeping people coming back. This is the age of technology and libraries are sensing that. If libraries are going to go out of business at some point then they are going to go down fighting. There is no reason other than laziness why people cannot get up and go to the library to get dvd's for free rather than sitting on their couch just to pay for it on Netflix. I think Voltaire's Candid is similar to this article because each chapter almost seems like a new episode of a season. You could easy read one chapter a week and get somewhat confused, but people would more rather sit down and watch/read all of them to get the full effect.

  10. For the same reason that Shakespearean plays were meant to be watched and not read, sometimes visual media takes precedence over written text. Additionally, we have focused on Chocolat with its strong rhetorical form; who's to say that it did not highly represent written text? Chocolat was an exercise in our ability to apply literary terms to a visual text--something that seemed very challenging at first, but something that worked out when we gave it a shot. We have explored both visual and written text and we are in the process of working both of them to demonstrate that they are comparable.

  11. I am definitely one of those people who lacks the ability to follow a television show week after week. I am a very big Game of Thrones fan; however I have a hard time remembering the important conversations and points made in previous episodes when I have to wait a long time in between. I had no idea that libraries even had movies and shows on DVD. I will be completely honest in saying that I cannot remember the last time I actually checked anything out of the library. I always picture libraries as facilities that are kind of stuck in time and have stayed the same for years; part of their charm. It's nice to see them changing to fit the desires of today's society. Even my town's little book store was put out of business because they couldn't keep up with the Kindle and other online reading sources. My 9th grade history teacher expressed her idea that we may not know exactly what the future will be, but we can guarantee one thing. Everything in the future will be faster, easier and cheaper. I think this idea can be applied to sites like Netflix. Do you remember back when you actually had to wait to rewind the VHS tape to watch it again? Or going to stores like Blockbuster? People want their information. And they want it now.

  12. I've always thought of libraries as places for centuries-old classics that students were forced to read, so it goes without saying how shocked I was to see that there were DVDs and audiobooks at the library in my town. Like many of the people who have commented here, I am also a fan of Game of Thrones. I tend to watch at least a few episodes at a time, and can't imagine how difficult it would be to only watch one episode per week. There's so much character development in media nowadays that seeing just a little bit of a show at a time would make a character's decisions seem less meaningful. However, in television shows where there is little character development, like Family Guy or Spongebob, viewers don't think much about what a character does, and can even predict what that character will do because of their static personality. I think viewing one episode of a TV show like this is a lot like Voltaire's "Candide" in that characters aren't developed much. Chapters of "Candide" can also be read in pretty much any order and make the same amount of sense, and episodes of TV series like these can be watched in whatever order the viewer chooses.

  13. For all: gotta keep in mind that libraries--*public* libraries, in this case, though my statement applies well to all sorts--are responsible to and responsive to their communities. That means you--YOU!--have an obligation to engage in a conversation with your library if you hope to see your interests served. Any given library will work to recognize and then to honor (to the degree the budget allows) the needs of its constituents. Actively participate in that process in order to ensure YOUR community's resources serve the broadest need.

  14. I think it's interesting the way that television media has taken over the novel. It makes sense since clearly society uses television as a gathering point when literature used to do the same. It never occurred to me that libraries have movies and film media. Taking to the times, libraries are smart to integrate film media into their stock of literature. I would consider binging on a television series a good thing in general. Until it interferes with normal day-to-day activities, it is a way that people can get their dose of literature without actually spending the time, isolated, reading a book. This is because television characters and plots have developed to the point that they are as complex as a novel. The reason most people binge on any given series is that, like a good book, you don't want to stop in the middle. This system of binging is very much like "Candide" because there is one episode right after another that continues a story, yet may have a slightly different focus. "Candide" follows a similar pattern, in that the chapters are small, packed with plot, and don't always follow chronological order (i.e. flashbacks). I embrace the binge mood in today's media because it is a good attempt at being replacing lengthy novels, whereas movies fall short due to time constraints.

  15. It completely makes sense that media has taken over the novel. As technology grows and industrializes, so does the way that we get our news and connect with others around us. Technology has been a major driving force in our society's integration. Why you may ask? Because we can connect with each other instantly, learn about news from all over the world with a push of a button. We have so many resources from so many writers and authors from so many different parts of the world that, naturally, come with a multitude of points of view. This integrates different opinions on issues such as gay marriage, discrimination, etc. and shapes how every single one of us sees a situation because we can also learn and understand what that situation is like from the opposite end of the spectrum. However, as much as something may be positive, there are always negative aspects to everything as well. The fact that we can get information so quickly has taught us to be impatient. The only way something keeps our interest afloat is if it keeps adding new twists and turns in each episode and keeps the audience on the end of their seats. This is why, I believe, media and television is becoming the new novel, and there is even a shift in the way television is being produced. Older shows would have a whole entire story in each episode that people may or may not watch. However, if they did not watch it, no harm done. New television shows, however, keep audiences coming back for more as each episode is a crucial part of the whole. Missing one episode would mean a hole in the plot so the audience continuously comes back for more. In addition, each episode constantly adds new twists and turns, making each episode more and more exciting and never dull. It keeps the audience at the edge of their seat, increasing profits for t.v. directors, etc. and keeps audiences interested, which is difficult with so much impatience embedded in our culture. Furthermore, the visuals in television allow the audience to see and understand the characters from a myriad of perspectives, something a novel cannot accomplish in the same fashion. It allows for more integration and more growth in our society.