Culture

Netflix Viewing Parties Might Sound Lame, But They’re The Future (And Really Fun)

"If you watch a show on Netflix and you weren’t simultaneously bitching about it on messenger, did you really watch it?"

Netflix viewing party

Here’s the thing — if you hate going outside but you also really hate being alone, then you should probably be organising a viewing party. All the slightly uncool kids are doing it!

On Saturday night, me and some of my most beloved friends and workplace acquaintances watched The Princess Switch together, which sounds like a wholesome and enjoyable weekend activity — except we did it separately from the comfort of our own homes. We were able to non-awkwardly wear pyjamas and sit in our beds and enjoy all the benefits of socialisation with absolutely none of the downsides, such as people being in your house or pants.

This is not a unique thing — lots of people are holding viewing parties, with various levels of formality. It can range from two friends absently watching something at the same time, to highly organised, hashtagged social media events. It can be done spontaneously, DIY, or it can be processed through apps and watching party technology.

Are we wasting our youth staying inside and forgoing the discotheques, or are we utilising streaming technology to actually more efficiently socialise and consume content at the same time? Are we forging digital communities? Are we actually revolutionising the social process of watching television?

Or, as Hannah Jenkins, TV watcher and writer puts it: “If you watch a show on Netflix and you weren’t simultaneously bitching about it on messenger, did you really watch it?”

So, What Is A Viewing Party Anyway?

In its most basic format, a viewing party is simply the act of using a streaming service like Netflix or Stan to watch a show or movie at the same time as someone else — but twist, that person is not physically with you.

They are probably at their own home, or they could be anywhere — secretly at work, in a fast train, or perhaps on the top of the tallest mountain on earth.

The other half of the experience is that you use the internet to converse with the person about the experience, on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or the like. Simple! Probably a fairly inevitable use of the technology more than anything else.

There’s a couple of apps and services which have tried to streamline or expand the experience — there’s the Netflix Party app which provides an automatic sync plus messaging service, or Rabb.it, which can be used across all streaming services.

It’s unclear exactly how popular they are, but the option is certainly there.

Friends Semi-Ignoring Friends

Junkee put out a call to chat with anyone who regularly hosted viewing parties, with the intent of discovering just what kind of people do this. Weird, doomsday prepping recluses? Or your average, non-bunker dwelling chap with a Netflix account and a spare hour or two?

“Every week, me and my oldest friend use the Netflix Party chrome extension to sort of catch-up on our lives (she lives in Perth) and trash talk shitty content as we watch it.” says comedian and writer Alistair Baldwin.

“We’ve done this on and off for years, ever since I moved from Perth to Melbourne. Honestly, long distance friendships are hard and I genuinely credit watching shows together like this for how close we’ve stayed across literally the entire width of this continent.”

Obviously, this is one of the wholesome benefits of streaming viewing parties — overcoming the tyranny of distance.

“So, this all started cause for a lot of our 20s we haven’t lived near each other,” says Emma Jenkins, about keeping in touch with her sister Hannah. Often they were separated by oceans and timezones, and used watching Netflix together as a way of staying connected.

“Like to me, it is genuinely indistinguishable from hanging out IRL and watching TV together,” she continues.

It’s an interesting concept — the majority of times I’ve ever gotten together to watch TV or movies with friends, it’s usually accepted that it will be the kind of show that we’re allowed to talk over, such as the classic High School Music trilogy.

You wouldn’t necessarily grab a huge group of people to watch something serious or attention-requiring — or at least not my friends.

Friends Make Fun Of TV Shows Together

“The trick is that it absolutely has to be garbage television, shows that are only tolerable with a running sidebar commentary on how garbage they are,” claims Alistair Baldwin.

It’s a good point — it would be kinda weird to sync up your Netflix and then just kinda coincidentally watch it together in silence. The lure is not about watching stuff at the same time — it’s commenting, criticising, communicating. And in order to do that, you can’t commit your entire attention to the movie.

It’s about the dialogue, and the connection, more than the content itself.

That’s why The Princess Switch was so perfect, it had plot holes so wide you could live in them. You only needed half your attention at the most to take it all in — the rest of your brain can be spent making jokes about the tiny child being a terrifying robot thing.

“In the past, we’ve watched shit classics like Gossip Girl and MTV’s Scream series,” continues Baldwin.  “We’re currently watching Riverdale together, which is ideal because it’s so bad, has only gotten worse — and yet it has just enough wholesome queer side characters for us to root for while yelling at the main straights who are literally… investigating DnD cults and orchestrating prison breaks? If it’s a bad show, you can use the scenes featuring your most hated of characters to legit talk to each other about life and jobs and relationships and stuff. I cannot stress enough that the show must be bad.”

It’s A Better Way Of Watching TV

Hannah and Emma don’t necessarily agree on the “bad TV only” rule, and actually find that “co-watching” as they call their own viewing party, can accentuate the way they engage with what they’re watching.

“I think I have a tendency to passively watch stuff like a couch potato, but co-watching lets me watch critically which is a more rewarding experience,” says Hannah.

“I often watch something alone and love it then will rewatch it with Em because it becomes a much more conscious experience to know that someone else is also consuming something, so you can kind of see it through their eyes”

Emma adds that “it’s a very different way to watch something, if you’re also constantly thinking about putting your thoughts into sentences.”

I’m Staying Home So You Better Get This Party Started

While most of the people we talked to usually do fairly contained viewing parties, there’s the scope for much larger efforts, such as the hashtagged viewing party events #PaceysCreek or #LivebyFive.

In these examples, a group of mostly Australian Twitter users get together to sync and watch Dawsons Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer respectively, tweeting their commentary to the various hashtags.

It’s a bit more public than a messenger chat, but it does allow more people to join in.

“The first time I did it, it was actually an accident. This was years ago,” says BuzzFeed journalist and author Jenna Guillaume. “I was sitting at home watching a Nicholas Sparks movie on Foxtel (this was before Netflix lol) and tweeted something silly about it. One of my friends on Twitter said she was also watching the movie and we starting tweeting back and forth, and then another friend started watching it too because she saw our tweets, and joined in.”

From there, they have moved on to Dawson’s Creek, adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and every cheesy Christmas romance movie they could find.

“The most consistent and sustained viewing party I’ve been a part of is #PaceysCreek… we were all feeling so nostalgic we decided to rewatch the first episode of Dawson’s Creek together. We enjoyed it so much we agreed to make our way through the whole series.”

Jenna Guillaume says that live-tweeting makes a show more fun to watch, first and foremost.

“People are there to laugh at your snarky comments and make their own. It makes you feel like part of a community. I think with #PaceysCreek in particular, it’s helped me forge really strong bonds with other writers and tweeters. We support each other and just have a lot of fun. They often offer perspectives on the shows and movies that I hadn’t considered before – or else they confirm my own, which is gratifying in a different way.”

It’s become such a staple in her life that she says she rarely watches TV on her own anymore.

“Even if I’m not doing an official viewing party, I generally live-tweet myself anyway because that’s just how my brain works now. Twitter has broken me.”

Friends Are Good I Guess

There’s a lot constantly being written about how technology is isolating us, that loneliness is becoming an epidemic. But you only have to look at all these stories to see how viewing parties are helping people connect.

And I defy you to feel lonely while collectively roasting terrible Christmas movies with your friends.

As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said, in his book Palm Sunday:

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

I don’t think a Netflix viewing party is the answer to this, but it doesn’t hurt. At worst, you get to share the experience of watching something truly excruciating with a friend.

At best, you’ve formed a little digital community.

Patrick Lenton is the Entertainment Editor at Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.