The Queue Needs to Die

Netflix interface on the Xbox 360

Back when Netflix was a fledgling DVD-by-mail rental company, still only hoping to take the world by storm but not yet having done so, they popularized the concept of a rental queue, a list of DVDs you could set up and organize so Netflix would (depending on availability) send you the DVD you wanted most. Other companies picked up this idea, whether the correlation was exact or not – Netflix competitor Greencine has a queue that works the same as Netflix’s, Gamefly has a queue to send you video games in order, while streaming-only site Hulu set up a queue to keep your shows in order, basically treating it as a playlist so you could watch your shows continuously.

But with the ongoing transition from physical to streaming media, the queue needs to die. The concept of the queue is based on linearity. You watch this movie, send it back, get another movie, watch it, send it back, get another one, etc. Its whole purpose is to keep the list of movies you want to see but can’t yet in order, so Netflix(/Greencine/Gamefly/etc) knows what to send you next. In streaming media, there is no linearity, at least not in terms of what Netflix, et al, needs to know. You many only be able to watch one thing at a time, but there is no reason whatsoever for you to keep an ordered list of what else you want to watch, in order of how soon you want to watch it.

Netflix Canada and UK users are jumping up and down right now screaming that they’ve never had a queue. And it’s likely that Netflix realizes that a queue, as it exists right now, is not particularly useful for streaming media, and that’s why they haven’t bothered to implement one for users who have never had DVD subscriptions through them. They may very well take the queue away from US users as well. But that’s not optimal, either, because with a wide range of streaming possibilities, we need a way to keep track of the things we want to see, or might want to see again, and to separate them from the thousands of movies we have utterly no interest in seeing ever. The queue as currently implemented for US users is workable for this, but not ideal – the linear nature of it makes it difficult to navigate, and the 500-item limit isn’t large enough.

My queue on Netflix; it generally runs around 480 titles long

So the Queue should die, and in its place should come the Collection. That is, a way for each user to mark any film on a streaming service as part of their “collection”, and they should be able to manipulate that collection in all the same ways you can manipulate the entire Netflix library. So if I’m in the mood for a comedy, I should be able to browse comedies, but be able to optionally limit the results to the comedies I’ve marked for my collection. Note I said “optionally” – you should always be able to pull back and browse the whole library, too. There would be no limit on the size of this collection, so you’d never have to worry about having to declare that you’re no longer interested in one thing just in order to declare your interest in another thing. And, if films you’ve marked for your collection expire off Instant Watch and are later added again, they should be returned to your collection automatically.

I’ve been speaking about this idea in terms of Netflix, but for every streaming media service I know of, the collection concept would work much better than the queue or playlist concept. (More on playlists in a minute.) Hulu is a great example. I have HuluPlus on my Xbox, and it’s great to watch Criterion films at the drop of a hat. But the queue is an utter nightmare. TV shows and movies aren’t separated out, which wouldn’t be too bad except that on my Xbox, the queue lists individual episodes separately, so I could have three episodes of a show, then five movies, then two more episodes of it, then ten more movies, in that order. That’s messy. Plus the HuluPlus queue is difficult to reorder, since it’s on multiple pages – my queue right now is some 20+ pages long, and it’s a nightmare to try to get things in some semblance of order, and even then, it still has the problem of being linear when it doesn’t need to be. If instead I could just browse all the shows or movies I’ve marked for my collection, without regard for order and without individual episodes clogging the works, I might actually use HuluPlus outside of the few times a month I go to watch a specific film.

HuluPlus interface on Xbox 360

In streaming subscription music, the Collection concept is useful as well. I love Spotify, but the fact that the only way I have of keeping track of music is by adding it to a playlist drives me NUTS. Playlists definitely have their place, for curating specific music or songs either for your own use or for others, and I’ve gotten great use out of Spotify’s playlists. Here I’m not suggesting that playlists need to go away, but merely that they’re not suitable for every task. Right now I have a playlist of 2012 albums, because I don’t know any other way to keep track of them so I can listen to them and evaluate them for my Tunes Worth Hearing series and my eventual year-end lists. That playlist is now over 600 songs long, and it’s only April! That means by December, it will have over 2000 songs in it, and that’s a ridiculous amount of content for a linear organizational system.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover all the other music I want to check out. I had a playlist for a while called “music I want to check out.” Between indie bands I’d heard of through friends, classic rock I wanted to catch up on, jazz music I wanted to learn more about, back catalog music from bands I grew to love late, etc., the list ballooned to unmanageable before I could blink. Separating those things out into genres didn’t help much, either. What I need is a way to mark songs for my Collection, so they’re organized not linearly by all the songs, but browsable/searchable by genre, artist, and year of release. That would make Spotify 1000x more useful to me than it already is, which is a lot.

My 2012 Albums playlist on Spotify; 652 tracks, and we're barely into April

When I suggest things like this, I usually get a few people telling me to just search for what I want. Well, yes. All these services are built strongly on searching (or on recommendations). And that’s great, for people who are searchers. People who know what they want to watch or listen to and can just go get it. I’m much more of a browser. I’m much likely to think, “I want to watch a movie tonight, what should it be,” and then browse through available options. With so MANY available options, I need a way to tap quickly down into what kind of thing I’m interested in right now, and I need those results to include not just things Netflix or Hulu thinks I might want to watch, but what I’ve earmarked as things I want or need to watch. I can’t be the only person like this. So for us picky browsers, streaming media companies ought to move away from the idea of a linear queue and towards the idea of a non-linear collection.