Querying the Queue

Curator's Note

In a recent elegy to the closing of the Blockbuster, film critic Dana Stevens points out that -- for all its faults -- the chain store was “a place of encounter with movies, a site where they’re physically arrayed as objects to handle, examine, discuss, and peruse.” It can be said that Netflix queue serves as a digital analog to this bygone high-touch practice. Developed by the company itself and by user-created hacks, the evolving queue is the tool through which we have managed, rearranged and organized our viewing habits in the last decade. In undertaking this personal film archive, we also articulate to ourselves, and others who we are as viewers and even as individuals.

In “Reading and Archive: Photography between Labor and Capital” Allan Sekula describes the visual archive as a “clearing house” of meaning in which the possibility of meaning is liberated from contingencies of use. “Clearly archives are not neutral,” Sekula notes “they embody the power inherent in accumulation, collection and hoarding.” Regardless of content, the creation and ongoing maintenance of an archive is a performance, a repetition and a ritual. Our personal archives allow us to imagine an (often non-existent) audience to whom we display our mastery of a lexicon and a body of knowledge. These archives function as our “tacit narratives,” notes scholar Eric Ketelaar. They are the stories we tell ourselves almost without realizing that a story has been constructed. It is abundantly clear that many of us have been using our Netflix queue as just such performative archives. There are the titles we watch….and then there are the titles that are simply queued. If we are honest, we may note that not only do we not get to some titles, but that their existence on the queue actually replaces our need for viewing at all. Queuing titles does evidence some of the power of archival accumulation, allowing us to “claim” the films. In building our queue we exert some small mastery over an endless media barrage, and the Sisyphean task of viewing. Within my queue, I perform an idealized version of myself (one who has watched both Into Great Silence and Shoah.) Sekula remarks “The specificity of original uses and meanings can be avoided, and even made invisible,” when an item finds its way to the archive. Archiving absolves us of the content, and our queues forgive us our viewing omissions.


I love the final phrase "within my queue, I perform an idealized version of myself" and it brings me back to where your post began - at the video store. Admittedly, I am a bit sentimental after a week at home with my family for Thanksgiving and after a week driving around Philadelphia and seeing all that has changed since I moved away. As I narrated to my partner the here's and there's of where I used to spend my time, TLA video spent stuck out to me. TLA offered a huge selection of foreign and independent films and it contains some of my earliest and fondest memories of people-watching. Your piece about performing self in Netflix queues makes me rethink the performances happening as people strolled through isles of VHS films at TLA. It seems to me that the Netflix queue offers an intriguing space because of the performance of self-for the self rather than, say at TLA, where the performance of self was for the self as much as it was the other patrons of the store. Ultimately, however, we are the ones watching the movies we choose - regardless of what we carry around the store of line up in our queue.

I completely agree, Rachel. I have a soft spot in my heart for the store in my Connecticut home town where friends and I lazed about the aisles talking about films. (Those small-town [non-Blockbuster] stores had the added bonus of tiny curtained off "adult" sections you could sneak into and look at the video covers. You have a point that their is a key difference between these internal and external performances. The video store was a communal endeavor, while building you queue (no matter how much you share it) has a very private aspect. I can recognize that the queue functions for me as a stop-gap, a little self deception. It's akin my lengthy, unending to-do list. (A place where my husband says my tasks go to die) My queue insulates me from the (tiny) trauma that there is more to view than I'll ever manage. My desires and interests far outreach my capacity. Should I be dramatic, I might even evoke mortality here. My queue is a little trick of the mind, "Yes, I'm that person, There's time for this."

Thank you for this very engaging post. As Rachel, I was struck by the idea that we are performing idealized versions of ourselves and can certainly identify with the idea that "In building our queue we exert some small mastery over an endless media barrage, and the Sisyphean task of viewing". I find it very interesting how, especially with social media, we create images of ourselves that do not just appear in conversations but are posted for the world to see, with no specific interlocutor in mind. While advertising one's cue seems to be a conscious act (like browsing in a video-store section we know we won't rent from, unless it stems from the desire to not only affect our image but also our actions), the ease of crafting a cue seems to privilege not only creating an idealized self, but as you point out, creating that illusion without realizing it is an illusion. Could the Netflix cue be considered as a coping mechanism in face of the unlimited potential created by Netflix itself? I also wonder to which extent, unbeknown to us, it changes us deeper than in the images we create of ourselves (not only the act of queing, but all the potentialities afforded by the service).

Well written post, and a provocative subject captured in so few words. Thank you Lindsay. I could easily echo the thoughts of Rachel and Ariane, but instead of repeating them (though they're worth repeating), I'll offer two thoughts that might open up additional avenues of discussion on the performance of self in the Netflix Queue. First, I'm not so sure that the performance of the self is entirely for the self. There's definitely something interesting about the way it mirrors our beliefs about ourselves, but it is also not entirely a self-constructed narrative seen only by the self. Almost everyone I know who has a Netflix account has at least one person--a friend, family member, or significant other--that shares their account with them. I am not alone in (perhaps cynically) wondering if Netflix's recent move toward making "profiles" is an attempt to monitor this kind of sharing. Either way, that sharing does make the queue a semi-public presentation of self. For a time, I was watching Netflix on my mother's Apple TV and for about a year after that, she continued to watch Netflix using my account. As a result, I would sometimes find myself declining to put a movie on my queue because it might lead to embarrassment. (As a bit of an addendum, I can't help noting that the folks that you are referring to, Lindsay, in your slideshare, are folks that have shared their queues for public consumption. It would stand to reason that their queues will be curated in a way that is likely not representative of the average Netflix user who does not share their queue with others publicly). This lead me to my second point: What might the absence of film and TV titles in one's queue say about a person? It would seem that the presence of titles is balanced by the absence of others. In some senses, the queue is ostensibly meant to function as a holding space for titles you have not yet seen. In this case, what are absent are the titles you have seen. For others the queue can also serve as the equivalent of a DVD library. In other words, as a list of titles one has already seen. In this case, what might be absent are the titles one has not seen. In the first case, the performance is one of desire: look at all these titles I would like to see. In the second case, it's a performance of accomplishment: look at all the titles I did see. These are two really different performances of self. But since the audience is (most often) also the self, perhaps what Lindsay is saying is that these two performances collapse so that the self is creating a library of not-yet-seen titles as if that collection amounts to having seen them. I'm curious what any of you would say on this.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.