We Fear Change, Part 2: Netflix’s Interpretive Approach

I consider my well versed at making apologies. If there is anything that I have learned by apologizing, it doesn’t involve changing my name and creating a new identity for myself. Well maybe that’s not such bad idea after all.

Last week when I received an email from Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, I treated it like one of the several hundred emails I get from Paul each day. I scanned it just closely enough to talk to him intelligently about it with him so when he calls five minutes after sending it, I can pretend like I really care. As a Netflix customer, I think that Reed’s email may have been misunderstood. It is my hope through this blog post that I can translate or read between the lines to help you understand the recent changes.

I try not to be one of those people (Paul Caputo) who fear change. The part that really bothered me about the change was the approach. Reed’s letter takes interpretive writing principles and uses them in an evil way. We all know that Jedi Mind Tricks are for the weak minded, so I wasn’t fooled by his red envelopes. Reed didn’t read the postscript in Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage where he unveiled his 7th principle of interpretation: “Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Where he said Jedi, I’m pretty sure that was a typo that should have been interpreter. Who am I to question genius, though?

Here’s the letter and my comments are in parentheses (of course).

Dear Schafer, (Yes, my real name is Schafer. Insert your own jokes in the comments section.)

I messed up. I owe you an explanation. (Nice start, Roger Clemens should have taken this approach. Honesty goes a long way with readers, visitors, and baseball fans.)

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. Let me explain what we are doing. (Building a relationship by saying “I have heard from you and I’m sorry.”)

For the past five years, my greatest fear (Anger, fear, aggression…okay we know what Yoda has to say about that, and I agree.) at Netflix has been that we wouldn’t make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great that new things people want. So we moved quickly into streaming, but I should have personally given you a full explanation of why we are splitting the services and thereby increasing prices. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do. (Is he really just angry at the U.S. Postal Service or simply taking out aggression that DVDs are almost a thing of the past and they aren’t bringing in the cash they used to? The take home message here is: Daddy’s gonna get paid.)

So here is what we are doing and why. (Reed is setting the stage for meeting his objectives though this letter.)

Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD. DVD is a great option for those who want the huge and comprehensive selection of movies. (Trying to relate.)

I also love our streaming service because it is integrated into my TV, and I can watch anytime I want. The benefits of our streaming service are really quite different from the benefits of DVD by mail. We need to focus on rapid improvement as streaming technology and the market evolves, without maintaining compatibility with our DVD by mail service. (He wants to play for the Yankees and the Red Sox. Though I’m sure in the future the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox and Netflix will be used one in the same when describing failure.)

So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are really becoming two different businesses, with very different cost structures, that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. (See take home message above. Revelation coming now, please continue reading.)

It’s hard to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming. (Okay, I’m lost. Wait, I see. Let’s take away any loyalty you have to “Netflix” DVDs because it is easier to kill something you don’t care about then you will come crawling to “Netflix” streaming video, your old red friend.)

Qwikster will be the same website and DVD service that everyone is used to. It is just a new name, and DVD members will go to qwikster.com to access their DVD queues and choose movies. One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade option, similar to our upgrade option for Blu-ray, for those who want to rent Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Members have been asking for video games for many years, but now that DVD by mail has its own team, we are finally getting it done. Other improvements will follow. A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated. (Was he serious about the name Qwikster? I’m pretty sure that handle on Twitter is taken by my brother-in-law.)

There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!). If you subscribe to both services you will have two entries on your credit card statement, one for Qwikster and one for Netflix. The total will be the same as your current charges. We will let you know in a few weeks when the Qwikster.com website is up and ready.

For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that lovely red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be similar for many of you. (He’s right, we love those red envelopes. I’ve even heard Paul say “My marriage depends on those red envelopes!” I’m pretty sure Paul’s wife has him enduring some sort of post-baseball television sensitivity training that involves the movies Steel Magnolias, Beaches, and Fried Green Tomatoes. Don’t mind trick us here, we know they won’t be Netflix DVDs because of the new complementary color palette.)

I want to acknowledge and thank you for sticking with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly. (Uh, we are not the stickees but the ones being stuck. If he is trying to provoke here, he was successful)

Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions. (This taken from the New York Times bestselling Book of Bad Coaching Cliches in the chapter titled When You Care Enough to Say the Very Least.)

Respectfully yours (Stick it in your ear),

-Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix

p.s. I have a slightly longer explanation along with a video posted on our blog, where you can also post comments. (Doesn’t he know that no one reads blogs anymore? What an idiot.)

Okay so this was more of a rant than a blog post, I’m sorry. I just needed to get this off of my chest. Lessons: realize your patrons are smarter than you, focus on what you are good at, be honest, and don’t use tested interpretive writing techniques for evil.

Voice of the Village

In 1995 I was hired as a seasonal interpreter with Arkansas State Parks. I was so excited to have the chance at a professional position, doing what I went to school for, and working in an area I was passionate about. One of the first steps towards being prepared for that position was to attend seasonal interpreter training. My initial impression upon meeting other classmates at the training was mixed, mostly because I wasn’t sure that I fit in with the group. This was a feeling that I was well accustomed to and had experienced in most every other interaction that I have ever had with humans.

Being highly trained in the skill of observation, one thing that I picked up on immediately was the amount of original personalities in the group. I was witnessing originality from the outside looking in but I found myself concerned about my lack of outward originality as well as my lack of  inner voice. Now that I look back with experience I see that it was the originality of those interpreters’ personalities and styles that help make the profession what it is today.  That training helped me find my voice as an interpreter.

Originality and voice are key elements of interpretation.  Freeman Tilden speaks of both elements in his definition of interpretation from Interpreting Our Heritage.

Heritage interpretation is an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.

The use of the word original was no accident. It is those original objects that make our interpretive sites special. Those original objects can range from a prehistoric ceramic vessel to a landscape to a compelling story. It is “the thing itself” as Richard Todd coined in his book The Thing Itself that is the motivation behind creating where you work or what you interpret. How those relationships and meanings are revealed is where an interpreter’s voice comes into play.

I recently came across an article titled Getting Real at Natural History Museums on the online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reading the Chronicle could be part of the reason that I have issues interacting with others. Perhaps I should spend more time visiting TMZ or on Facebook. The writer of the article Thomas H. Benton (pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan) re-caps a recent visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (insert joke about Paul, museums in Philadelphia, cheese, and the Phillies) and is particularly harsh about his experience and what museums should interpret.

I have been compelled to read his article several times along with the other supporting articles that he provided about his visit. I also was compelled to come up with a pen name. His perspective voice from outside the field of interpretation is more than valuable to those of us on the inside because not only did he write about what museums and interpretive sites should be doing he speaks to the importance of originality, and “the thing itself.”

At one point in the article Benton aka Pannapacker (no wonder he has a pen name) makes this summation about museum interpretation.

It had taken many generations for museums to cultivate a kind of cultural capital that shaped visitors’ expectations in advance, similar to the experience of making a pilgrimage to a famous cathedral, full of relics. But in the last few decades, many natural-history museums have tried to emulate the entertainment industry, focusing almost exclusively on children and tourists—attempting to generate spectacles that do not cultivate quiet reflection and cannot sustain repeated encounters. The result has been a dilution of the museum’s formerly well-established identity: one that had cross-generational appeal and a deep connection to institutional histories and the local community.

On an interesting side note Benton was contacted by the Academy as well as other museums to help facilitate discussions on visitor experiences and expectations. The power of the visitor opinion or voice is a driving force in other areas online as well.

Paul and I have both have consulted Trip Advisor while planning distraction-based activities while we attend baseball games on “family vacations.” Our wives have been impressed with our combined knowledge about places that offer authenticity and original objects in cities with MLB parks. If you haven’t checked on reviews of your interpretive site or facilities on the website, you should. It can be empowering and depressing. There are several other online communities similar to Trip Advisor where visitors can be responsible for sharing or tearing experiences at your site.

If you stay close to your mission, interpret original objects, work with an original staff, and follow Tilden’s definition of interpretation you are probably doing fine. If you spend most of your day on Facebook just remember that there is someone out there with a voice to report that they saw you on Facebook while at the front desk.