Curator's Note

This image is barely an image, at least not until pulled from its interface, from the lower right corner of the screen where it hovers for a few seconds before vanishing.[1] It doesn’t get its own time or space of focus, appearing instead superimposed over what already plays. This is for the obvious reason that it’s not meant to be an image itself but simply an icon, the visual mark of what appears – and what is programmed – only in order to bring about a specific action. In this case, it invites or demands a gesture. It asks you who watch to also keep being you who clicks, you who engages not in order to see something but in order to not see something, and to skip over what would otherwise come next. Yet what results from this small motion, and its subtraction of title sequences and “previously on” re-caps, isn’t a subsequent absence of images and sound and motion. Hitting the skip doesn’t mean you carve out and sit in a little pocket of time amidst the stream, hearing yourself and whoever might be near you, or watching the dust amble around or thinking about the email you forgot to send but want now to still be forgetting, or feeling the seams of your jeans from sitting too long, or fidgeting in that held breath of an after or before. And what comes from the skip isn’t one of the familiar monochromes of cinema, those that always remain stranded between the process of production and the time of viewing, in an interval that says all done or not yet or source not detected. It’s not the black screen, saturated with expectation or dread, or the placeless promise of the green screen, meant to be left behind during compositing, or the white light of a projector without shutter or strip, after the reel runs out and before it is stopped, or the void video signal of the blue. No, what follows from clicking the button – which itself follows a scrambling search for the remote before the icon disappears, a perversely hurried action against the clock in order to cancel out some unhurried and potentially boring duration – are just more images, dragging the timeline backwards towards the present and filling in the gap. These images aren’t ones you would otherwise miss. They’re simply the ones that would come after, those you think you would rather see and that promise to be different from the others you think you’ve watched too many times already to get anything new from. So in this way, SKIP INTRO manages to cancel out both kinds of waiting time that hover around this moment: both that possible interval of missing images, of just sitting with the screen, and that prospect of spacing out while sitting through credits you know by heart, chewing your nails in time to the theme song you hum into them.

I think that if we want to make sense of the constitutive styles of streaming platforms, we need to invert a more familiar order of operations. That means not beginning from what might be identified as the tropes, moves, or visual and sonic forms that have been most profitable and hence most repeated to the point of ubiquity, especially after almost a decade of production exclusively for streaming services.[2] Rather, we have to think first about the contours and limits within which whatever is made or streamed will be framed. Because when we start with this mesh of small details, such as this little button, it brings us closer to the conditions that not only channel and inflect possible new production but also that rewrite us, its watchers, over time, with very explicit designs on our processes of looking.

The SKIP INTRO function has been available since 2017 on Netflix, with other platforms following in their wake. The small semblance of agency it offers makes it an explicit counterpoint to various forms of autoplay, a longer-standing function more obviously central to streaming platforms, particularly including YouTube. The effects of autoplay – here in the sense of automatically starting the next episode, rather than the grid of possible titles that start playing any time you scroll through them – are already apparent, even if some of those effects vanish into us and our compressed senses of time. As a Hacker News forum user who claims to be one of the feature’s designers explained, autoplay not only produced the “biggest increase in the hours watched KPI [key performance indicator] of any feature we ever tested,” but it also became something so incorporated into patterns of watching that Netflix shortened the countdown between episodes, dropping from 10 seconds to 5.[3] And in terms of style itself, autoplay’s results – as part of a general drive towards binge-watching – are apparent in how they transform the use and feel of the episode itself, which gets pulled in two diverging directions. In one regard, it is a skeuomorph, a residual design feature no longer occasioned by the weekly interval of time between when episodes air. And on the other, the episode is freed up to become a tool for a different kind of rhythm, a sort of formal envelope that provides a small gate or door of narrative closure to pass through. (In this way, it also has the accompanying symptom of making the once-familiar lengths of narrative film feel strange, both too long and far too short to manage the kind of narrative arc that a whole suite of episodes provides.[4])

What about the skip, this slightly newer ubiquity? Its most obvious promise and function is to let you never have to rewatch if you don’t want to, or to cancel out what you assume won’t be of any interest. I’d suggest that as with so many of the visual and technical patterns in contemporary TV and film, this derives especially from video games, which have long let you skip cutscenes to get back to the action, with the exception of notorious instances – looking at you, Max Payne 3 – that lock you into them, often to hide the loading of new levels or spaces.[5] What is so obvious about SKIP INTRO that it barely merits mention is how much it participates in an ideology of efficiency and “time saved,” even if primarily as cover for the consequential neurochemical traps of attention span. Netflix themselves trumpet this in their PR for the function, suggesting, that “in a typical day, the Skip Intro button is pressed 136 million times, saving members an astonishing 195 years in cumulative time!”[6]

As for the fine line separating the 91 seconds of time wasted on a Friends credit sequence fron the immensely generative 91 seconds of Joey being confused about what can or cannot be put into a dishwasher, I’ll leave that be here. Of more consequence is how this notion of saving time by skipping gestures to the erasure of two other temporalities. First, what the skip occludes is in large part the trace of another kind of time, that of the dense network of funding and labor that goes into the production of the show.[7] Second, the specific function of SKIP INTRO belongs to a much broader media tendency, in which the glide of rewind/fast-forward is replaced by the skip itself. We might notice, for instance, that many streaming platforms no longer even have a rewind button but rather just skip forward or back in units of 10 seconds.[8] Such a shift may seem inconsequential, but as part of a wider trendline in which embedded, looping, and auto-playing video becomes arguably the predominant form in which people encounter moving images (and especially as set within other sites or interfaces), it suggests the culmination of a process that’s long been in the works. Because unlike prior forms of recorded moving images, like VHS or the nonlooped film reel, digital video’s reset to clean slate is instantaneous, other than a system’s wee latency. That’s to say: we don’t rewind anymore. We don’t have to wait for images to be ready to roll again. We don’t wind back through it all, do it in reverse, see the bullet gag the barrel, the life flow back into the corpse, the wave unbreak and puke out a surfer. And because embedded video tends to isolate only moments that are supposed to be significant in themselves[9] – of which the episode shorn of its credits represents one larger version – we impoverish our sense of gesture in general, losing all the in-between, mundane, and minor that flesh out the gap between desired images. In this way the logic of looping is also therefore a logic of skipping, leaping over the work that vanishes into it, leaving just the single moment and effect.

I think the consequences this has and will have on what we might identify as streaming styles are still liquid, still in formation. But what we can know is that the ground on which those styles will take shape is predicated on a basic cancellation of what might happen in durations of time you do not choose, and where you do not see what you think you want to in the first place. One side of that is purely negative: the increasingly absent registration of work and money, of the relations of capital and unfree time that organize the production of what can do its best to shove those relations into the skippable credits. But the other side that goes missing is the prospect of the kind of proliferating thought that comes from boredom and irritation, from repetition and distraction, from rewinding and sitting through, from noticing just how many stunt drivers it took, from starting to notice the fundamental forms at work behind every title sequence you’ve watched for the past month. In his work on “time-critical media” such as digital video, Wolfgang Ernst notes how even though the “temporal coupling of humans and chronotechnologies” means that we come to be constitutively bound to technological temporalities, a continual mismatch between rhythms can produce a “techno-traumatic affect.”[10] Crucially, the trauma here is not the more familiar form of a tremendous breach in psychic defenses, but rather an “irritation,” the bristling repeated experience of friction from being at odds with the timescales of the media we live with and are shaped by. Ernst focuses particularly on the most granular temporalities and properties of media and hardware, but the SKIP INTRO marks the contested space of what is to be done with media irritation and its intervals, and the rising effort to neutralize those prickly spans of the already-seen where we keep feeling ourselves present. But if we think boredom and irritation as a catalyst for forms of noticing, for taking in the off-screen and the texture of the screen itself, and for glimpsing what all goes into what tries to vanish into seamless streams, then holding onto the occluded time of what we know too well is already part of the crucial terrain that style will have to navigate and claw back from the omnipresent skip.


[1] Moreover, this image is not taken as a still from that process: it’s from a Twitter account that was demanding HBO add a similar function to what Netflix already offered. This version seems the most fitting: the sign of the degree to which a “temporal coupling” (to use Wolfgang Ernst’s terminology, discussed later) becomes so close that the absence of a minor function like this becomes an annoyance, a noticeable and irritating absence itself.

[2] Of course, this timeline is even longer when we move outside the narrower bandwidth of film or television and into the sheer dizzying range of what gets made for YouTube.

[3] The forum can be found here:

[4] If we can see part of the history of twentieth-century cinema as a kind of capture of film by the narrative form of the novel, the dislocation of that purpose into a full season of TV – which shows itself to be seemingly more adequate to the task – means that feature-length films potentially enter into a compelling period of being open to new analogues and borrowings.

[5] As Ian Bogost draws out, there’s also a key question of transition, one that inherits histories of Flash animations during an earlier decade of the Internet. See:

[7] Even if only a whisper of that remains in the title sequence anyway, with most of it dumped in the end credits, which themselves get jumped over thanks to the autoplay of the next episode.

[8] And on many of them, the icon itself is neither the double triangle of rewind/fast-forward or the amended version with the vertical line to suggest “next episode,” but is itself a modified loop: an arrow in circular loop, chasing its own tail, stream-time’s Ouroboros.

[9] We should also join this to the ubiquity of the “chapter” on YouTube and elsewhere. An especially consequential version of this is how platforms for contemporary porn like Pornhub prioritize a kind of looking that can skip back and forth to isolate single moments from their already narrowed flow and possible variance. That tendency is explicit in compilations that gather repeated gestures, positions, or scenes, revealing the core of sheer repetition across all the putative difference on display. Yet it is present also in single videos themselves, in which—as if the unit of the scene itself was still too large—labeled time markers are added to let a viewer jump straight to whatever it is they think they want to see, like the chapters of a book whose ending you know from the start: “Fingering,” “Blowjob,” “Scissoring,” “Cowgirl,” “Reverse Cowgirl,” “Inverted Amazonian Cowgirl,” and onward from there. Except in practice, counter to my slight parody, this categorizing  doesn’t actually recede toward a horizon of increasingly arcane microgenres and distinctions, hewing instead toward the flattest designations of what happens and the basic geometry of an act itself. Indeed, when the algorithm tasked with categorizing can’t parse it out or just exhausts its lexicon, it offers instead the simplest, almost mournfully abstracted label: “Sex.”

[10] Wolfgang Ernst, “Temporalizing Presence and ‘Re-Presencing’ the Past: The Techno-Traumatic Affect,” Timing of Affect: Epistemologies, Aesthetics, Politics, eds. Marie-Luise Angerer, Bernd Bösel, and Michaela Ott (Berlin: Diaphanes, 2014), pp. 145-159.

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