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Dear Netflix and YouTube, everything is way too long

Commentary: Movies, video games, TV shows. Everything is just too damn long.

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- 05:05
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Endgame was too long.

Marvel

If you're an adult and you've spent any amount of time playing or thinking about video games, I guarantee -- at some point -- you've sat, controller in hand, and thought, "Why the hell is this video game so long?"

It's a garden-variety take so common you can guarantee, once every couple of years, a major outlet will publish an opinion piece about it. Video games are long, it'll say. Too long, even.

But here's the thing. I haven't been playing many video games recently -- partly because of the length. 

I've been watching movies.

Rewatching old movies, to be precise. Movies I grew up with: Terminator 2, The Karate Kid, The Thing. Great movies. Watching them, I found myself marveling at the ways they felt different from movies being released today -- sharper dialogue but tamer action sequences. More reliance on practical effects over CGI.

But maybe the biggest difference was length. I was shocked to find that most of my favorite movies from the '80s were -- anecdotally, based on what I was watching -- around 30 minutes shorter than the superhero movies I'd been bombarded with over the last decade.

Just like video games, movies are way too long. And the more I think about it, everything we consume -- TV, movies, video games, podcasts -- is just too damn long.

The long and winding road

There's a common thread here. I began thinking about my frustration with Netflix documentaries over the past few years. Recently, I suffered through Netflix's Cecil Hotel, a true-crime documentary focused on a Canadian student who went missing in the hotel under mysterious circumstances, before later being discovered drowned.

Cecil Hotel was a mess. A bloated, dishonest mess. To the point where I found myself literally shouting at the television. Like video games and movies, documentaries -- particularly those on Netflix -- are skewing long. They're multi-episode when they should be one episode, feature length when they should be an hour long. Just because Tiger King kept us glued to our seats for six episodes, doesn't mean every topic has the legs to follow suit.

netflix

Cecil Hotel was too long.

Netflix

But this is the new normal. In 2021, almost everything we consume is… long.

Podcasts are too long. Has any man alive finished an episode of the Joe Rogan podcast? (You probably shouldn't have started in the first place.)

TV shows are too long. To the point where people were losing their minds -- in a good way -- when Wandavision episodes turned in at a pleasantly short 30 minutes.

YouTube videos, stacked with strange men and their rambling opinions: obviously too long. 

TikTok is just a much longer version of Vine. Even TikTok is too long. Remember when Twitter bumped its character limit from 140 to 280? TOO LONG.

This story I'm writing? Probably too long. Can someone please edit this piece of garbage?

Begging for attention

I blame the attention economy. Whatever makes dollars makes sense. With advertising dollars placing dwell or watch time at a premium, that forces platform holders to incentivize the type of content that keeps us watching for longer. It's an endless feedback loop that results in most content being longer than it has any right to be.

With everything being online, we've gotten so much better at measuring everything. And that's part of the problem. Back in the day, when it came time to figure out how long or short stuff should be, we just sort of guessed? Or relied on a combination of anecdotal, lived experiences and surveys where everyone was on their best behavior, lying through their teeth about their horrific viewing habits.

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The Last of Us Part 2 was too long.

Naughty Dog

Nowadays, with big data and endless, prodding algorithms -- rifling through our Google searches, compiling our every inclination into monstrous, impenetrable spreadsheets -- it's impossible to hide our basest instincts when it comes to content consumption. Services like Netflix and YouTube are endlessly crunching numbers, figuring out exactly what type of moving images will keep our eyeballs locked in place the longest.

And at some point our algorithm overlords figured out that longer is better, at all costs. At the cost of quality, at the cost of efficiency, at the cost of all that is good and holy.

It's a weird juxtaposition. On the one hand, studies tell us our capacity for attention is shrinking. On the other hand, we're being spoon-fed content that demands more of our time.

One of the biggest games of 2020 was The Last of Us Part 2. It was 10 hours too long. Partly that's because the developers, seemingly worried they'd lose player interest if there was no action for 10 minutes, shoehorned pointless combat scenarios in places they weren't necessary. The game got longer because it was padded out by gameplay catered to short attention spans.

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Murder Among The Mormons was too long.

Netflix

Netflix documentaries are similar. Constantly retreading worn ground, repeating points made in earlier episodes. Recent releases like Cecil Hotel and Murder Among The Mormons are prime offenders. Maybe things are longer because our attention spans are allegedly shorter? 

Maybe.

More likely it's a testament to our very human capacity to misinterpret the endless streams of data generated by content services like Netflix. I'm sure YouTube surfaces lengthy videos in response to increased dwell time. And Netflix documentaries are most likely stretched into multi-part series, instead of feature length one-offs, because it increases arbitrary numbers in the back-end. Most likely it's the same thing on Spotify with podcasts. 

But unfortunately, there's no available metric that can measure the impact those decisions have on quality, or efficient storytelling, or me throwing the remote control at the TV. Perhaps, once we invent that algorithm, the movies, video games and TV shows we endlessly consume can start trimming themselves back a bit.

And then I won't have to sit on the couch, vibrating with rage, cursing the next multi-episode Netlix documentary for being so long.