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.

Good Flag, Bad Flag

I recently received a 1,019-word email from Friend of IBD Howard Aprill on the subject of flag design. Howard does this sort of thing because he blames us for the fact that he now notices design stuff and reads blogs, and he wants to get back at us for wasting his time.

I received Howard’s email about a month ago and I just finished reading it, so I thought I’d share parts of it with you. Evidently, Howard stumbled across a website for the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), which I was disappointed to learn has nothing to do with making people angry. Turns out, according to the organization’s website, vexillology is “the scientific and scholarly study of flag history and symbolism.”

NAVA’s website (which, ironically, is a jumbled mess, full of boxes and centered type) links to a pdf of a brochure called “Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag.” The brochure contains this sage advice, with Howard’s comments in parentheses:

  1. Keep it simple. (Duh.)
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. (Double duh.)
  3. Use 2–3 basic colors. (Makes sense to me but I’m interested in your thoughts on this.)
  4. No lettering or seals. (Apparently this is the Comic Sans equivalent of the flag world.)
  5. Be distinctive or be related.

.
These points are consistent with the advice graphic designers and interpreters offer—essentially, keep it clean, use a defined color palette, and above all be meaningful. (Though I would argue, related to point #4, that it would be okay for an organization devoted to the conservation and understanding of sea mammals to use a seal in its design.)

Even better than NAVA’s five design principles, NAVA’s website features a link to the results of a 2004 survey that ranks the design of flags from 150 U.S. cities. The ratings go from #1, Washington, DC (on the left, above) to #150, Pocatello, Idaho, where they are as proud of their mountains as they are their Microsoft WordArt.

Howard’s hometown of Milwaukee ranks 147th on the list. While he recognizes that the flag, designed in the 1950s, violates all stated and most unwritten rules of design (and a couple international laws related to the Geneva Convention), Howard offers this impassioned defense:

I think it’s a time capsule that captures the essence of post World War II Milwaukee. You notice that it’s busy filled with LOTS of things. Well that’s how folks felt about their town. The gear represents industry (at one time we actually MADE things in this town), the Native American head represents our original inhabitants, the ship represents the busy port, the golden barley stalk on the left represents our beer brewing industry. It even features the old County Stadium for the Milwaukee Braves. You have to understand, the Braves moved here from Boston in 1953 and this town was INSANELY proud to get a big league team.

I told Howard that I hope Milwaukee gets a big-league baseball team again some day.

The NAVA flag brochure says, “All rules have exceptions…but depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose.” The brochure holds up the Colorado state flag (pictured at the top of the post) as an example of a successful departure. It violates the rule of not using type in a flag, but does so elegantly and simply. I’d say that while the folks in Milwaukee departed from the rules with purpose, they also did so with reckless abandon.

Ultimately, flag design and interpretive design have a lot in common, in that they strive to be impactful, accessible, and meaningful. Because he makes the point far better than I could, I leave you with this thought from Howard:

In my opinion the challenges and components of flag design are very related to what we do in interpretation—trying to give relevance and meaning, building connections, tangibles (a piece of cloth) vs. intangibles (love of country, sacrifice, etc). We’ve all seen good flags and bad flags, just like we’ve all seen good interpretive panels and bad interpretive panels. I dare say there are things we can take away from the study of vexillology and apply to interpretation.

Shortest Post Ever (Excluding Parentheses)

I decided to challenge myself this week and practice what I preach. This is going to be the shortest post in the history of IBD. This is the point where in most of my posts, I make some sort of a confession, and then begin telling a story in attempt to relate some obsolete element of my life to whatever topic I am writing about that week. If that’s not working for me that week, I just start making fun of Paul. Okay, already getting too winded…sorry. Here are the rules, I’m going to keep the word count on this week’s post as low as if it was going to be placed on a wayside exhibit, the text in parentheses doesn’t count since it represents my thoughts, and the post starts at the beginning of the next paragraph. (How’s that for justification of breaking my own rules in this challenge?)

After reviewing a wayside exhibit proposal for a friend, I found myself telling her it was time to cut the text. Which is easier said than done. In IBD (the book not the blog, published in 2008, written by Caputo, Lewis, and Brochu, for sale through the link on the right side of this page) we refer to Gross, Zimmerman, and Buchholz’s 3-30-3 Rule from Signs, Trails, Wayside Exhibits where they say that most visitors spend 3 seconds looking at any given wayside exhibit, some look at the sign for about 30 seconds, and few spend 3 minutes reading the entire sign. (The 3-30-3 rule can also be adapted and modified to the 3-3-30-3-3 for the 3 readers of this blog who spend approximately 3 seconds reading our posts, 30 minutes making fun of us, who tell 3 friends about what idiots we are, and spend the next 3 days reading blogs that are more insightful than ours.) (Paragraph count: 76.)

I am also reminded here that each paragraph should have between 50-75 words and the number of paragraphs should not exceed three paragraphs. The most important elements of the theme should be included in the title. Especially, if most visitors only spend 3 seconds, primarily reading the title and looking at the message though images and graphics. (Paragraph count: 57, Total post word count excluding parentheses and starting with the second paragraph: 132, Words available for third and final paragraph: 92.)

I closed the conversation with a quote from Mark Twain who said, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” Based on the sigh heard over the phone, she most likely will not be asking me to review her work again. We should be reminded of Gross and Zimmerman’s 3-30-3 rule (it was Gross, Zimmerman and Buchholz’s 3-30-3 rule but, I’m counting words and had to make a cut somewhere. Sorry, Jim.) and how we craft  messages for the maximum effect. This exercise has been a great reminder to me of how difficult it is to be brief, how to break rules, and the power of parentheses. (Paragraph count: 92, Total post word count excluding parentheses and starting with the second paragraph: 225, Words allotted in three paragraphs according to Caputo, Lewis and Brochu: 225.)

Passion in Parentheses

Two of my last three posts have been about the community that revolves around IBD and this will mark another. I love being connected to our readers but it seems as if the relationship between Shea the friend and Shea the IBD blogger has been blurred.

I received one Christmas card and one Christmas letter (along with many others mind you, I didn’t just receive two) that included traditional holiday greetings along with specific notes not to put them on IBD.  I’m one of those people who visits a museum and when the sign says don’t touch, I have to. On one visit (of many annual visits, more to come in a future post) to Graceland, home of Elivs Presley in Memphis, Tennessee, I felt the touch of a security guard on my shoulder while touching a jumpsuit. There are no refunds at Graceland when ejected. I’m very tactile and it was worth the interrogation.

It is possible that I will not receive Christmas greetings from these two next year, I’m okay with that. This is a hard lesson to learn. The card was a beautiful handmade card not like anything that you would find on a Christmas aisle at any big box type store. It had a craftsman style to it along with huge amounts of character. It did have an insert that was desktop produced with a well written holiday greeting printed in an acceptable easy to read sans serif typeface. What else can you ask for in a holiday greeting? The letter was a very well written year in review type letter filled with beautiful images and interesting typefaces. It was thoughtfully laid out in an organized manner with great respect for ease of use by the reader. Again, what else can you ask for in a holiday greeting?

I was grateful to receive both extremely personal greetings produced with love and passion. Thank you to you both for sharing them with me and my family. But, this is the part that you have been waiting for, right? The part of the blog where I make insightful comments about their work that are filled with humor, right? The part where I use self-deprecating humor as an attempt to soothe the burn of criticism from a friend, right? Well, you will have to wait for a post from Paul reviewing some of my work for that to happen. I cannot post images of their greetings because their statements, added in parentheses, to a warm holiday greeting really bothered me. Would I have done something like that without the parentheses? Would I have put their greetings up on IBD to share with the world (actually about 9 people, 7 if you don’t count Paul and me)? Am I that kind of guy?

Okay, I guess I am and I am sorry.

The part that bothers me about these two statements is that our community and relationships in our community should be built on trust and two of you obviously can’t trust me. I’m sorry. I hate for such an important element of our community such as friendship being defined with parentheses. Saying Merry Christmas (don’t put this on IBD) is kind of like saying you are a great friend (when you don’t wear sweater vests) or I love you (but Star Wars is lame). Thank you for bringing the element of IBD paranoia to my attention. Again, I have no control over Paul and his future comments. Now that I think about it, I probably shouldn’t have scanned your letter and card and sent them to him. Again, I have no control over him.

Here’s what is great about your card and my second point in this post (the first point, just in case you missed it was that honesty is important in a community) is that your card and letter were both filled with passion. As I have said before I am sucker for passion. I can look past many design flaws, and use of Papyrus, if what is being produced is produced with passion. This is also goes for any interpretive product or program. If it is produced with passion or presented with enthusiasm, issues with style or technique can be easily overlooked. In Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden wrote about passion and said “Whatever is written without enthusiasm will be read without interest.” What you created and shared was filled with enthusiasm and passion. If we put more of our hearts and our souls into what we created the end product would be much higher quality.

McDonalds

Needless to say this McDonalds employee was lacking passion and enthusiasm when assigned the task of updating the marquee.