A Netflix advertisement caught my eye on the subway one evening. It read, “You have six shows in common with anyone on this train.”
That’s a crazy claim, I thought to myself. How could Netflix know this specifically about the New York City subway? The streaming service doesn’t publish its viewership numbers, and much of what it publicizes about viewer behavior isn’t verified by anyone outside the company. So when certain numbers are released, the public often takes note.
I was curious enough about the ad to propose a story to my editor: I would ride the subway and talk to strangers about their TV watching habits to see if there was any truth to Netflix's claim. It sounded like a simple enough idea, but when I set out to write the story I wasn’t prepared for the winding journey that led to me to talk about On My Block on the J train, to a phone call with a Netflix rep who gave me some staggering insights into watch habits around the globe, or to Twitter, where I talked to someone who’s mastered the art of making friends online using shared shows and movies. I realized that watching Netflix shows provides us common ground with strangers globally, but with so much to stream, the right people can be difficult to find.
Do I Actually Have Six Shows In Common With Anyone On The Train? Not Exactly.
To test the theory, I compiled a physical list of every show I’ve watched on Netflix with tick boxes next to every title. I included anything that was episodic, even shows available on Netflix that I’d consumed in other ways, like Pretty Little Liars, which I viewed on Freeform. I decided to make the bar for “watching” a show pretty low: I just had to have seen one episode. There were 42 shows on my list.
As an introvert who spends much of her day behind a computer, I knew I wouldn’t enjoy approaching strangers on the train. I partly worried about people being mean to me, and I partly worried about men using this as an opportunity to hit on me, but my biggest fear was that I would cause other people discomfort.
After chickening out a few times, I got into a rhythm and talked to several people in a row. I realized that if I pitched them fast and smiled a lot, I could actually boost their mood a little, in addition to collecting my data. A guy around my age named Jack (the demographic I least wanted to speak to — hot man in his mid-20s) started off surly and skeptical. When I handed him a list to check off, I realized it was already filled out by a previous subject, and got a little embarrassed, fumbling for a blank checklist. Sensing that he now had the social upper hand, Jack became friendlier, asking questions about my project and showing genuine enthusiasm by the time I said goodbye. I liked talking to Jack but wondered if he would have been so friendly had I not made myself vulnerable.
I polled eight people in total, three of whom were not Netflix subscribers. There were two men who appeared to be around 60, four women who looked to be in their 20s, one middle-aged woman, and Jack. The average number of shows I shared with them was exactly seven. The average among the four women who were in their twenties was nearly 13 (not totally surprising because we’re basically the same demographic), and I averaged just over one shared show with the others. Then I heard back from a rep at Netflix and learned I’d been approaching this exercise all wrong.
As it turns out, when the ad said, “You have six shows in common with anyone on this train,” what Netflix meant was, “If you’re a Netflix user, you have 6 shows in common with any other Netflix user around the world.” And by shows, they actually meant anything on Netflix, including movies, documentaries, and specials. My survey results, which were already fairly unscientific, meant nothing.
But I did have a new idea to ponder, which was much bigger than New York City. What role does Netflix play in global humanity?
Netflix Has Become Our Collective Conversational Crutch
The Netflix rep I spoke to said they were really excited to discover the “six shows” statistic because it’s a play on the old “six degrees of separation” adage — the idea that all people are six social connections (or fewer) away from one another. And arguably sharing six shows with a stranger is more intimate than having a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend in common.
Even before this experience, I found myself increasingly asking the people in my life what they’ve been watching as a way to make conversation. I’m not in school anymore, so I share fewer day-to-day experiences with my friends. When I was in college, it was so natural to talk about schoolwork, crushes, teachers, roommate drama, parties, and everything else that colored our days because there was so much we shared.
Still, even back then, we still frequently talked about our favorite TV shows. A few weeks before graduation, a friend I’d known for about a year convinced me to start watching Terrace House, a soothingly undramatic Japanese reality show. He and I lived in a co-op together and certain outings in Terrace House looked familiar.
We began to have inside jokes related to the show, and increasingly, we gravitated toward one another in group settings. We eventually started dating, and we’re still together. Terrace House isn’t the only reason we fell in love, but it gave us an easy way to bond in the early days. Plus, the show inspired him to get his hair cut like Yuuki Byrnes, and I have to say, it looks really good.
But for every love connection that occurs when two people bond over a shared show, there are plenty of failed connections as well. New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris recently outlined an example of a common, tiresome conversation he’s been having lately when he was interviewed on the Longform Podcast, and it goes like this:
“Did you guys watch Russian Doll?"
"No, I didn’t watch Russian Doll."
"Did you see the, what about, uh, the new Catastrophe season, that’s back."
"I’ve been meaning to watch that, I haven’t watched it yet."
"Uh, well, you know, Game of Thrones is coming."
"I stopped after season two.”
Morris called this “the spinning of the buffet wheel” until you find a TV show you can talk about. He's right that this exchange is dull. The nostalgia he feels for a time when everyone watched the same three shows is a rational response. But there’s a tradeoff, of course. Now, we have an exquisite variety of shows that feature underrepresented identities or decentralize America, which wouldn’t have been accessible before — or possibly never would have been made — and that seems more than worth a boring conversation or two.
The Netflix rep I spoke to shared examples of globally successful shows I’d never heard of. A German sci-fi thriller series called Dark, which chronicles mysterious disappearances in a fictional town, was beloved by fans in Chile, Bangladesh, and Canada, in addition to being a big hit in Germany. Good storytelling transcends language when you have subtitles. And with most social media platforms offering (rough) translations, fans across the world can discuss these shows and movies together, which facilitates online — and even real-life — friendships.
I’ve never had an online friendship transform into an IRL friendship, so I consulted one of my Twitter mutuals, Abbey, who is active in a very pure corner of stan Twitter. Abbey and her friends have accounts that often don’t contain their full name, and they tweet about specific shows, movies, directors, and stars. Abbey’s network loves Timothée Chalamet, Barry Jenkins, and the upcoming movie Booksmart. In addition to responding to each other’s tweets, they also form group DMs that migrate to other platforms, like texting.
Abbey has met a lot of her mutuals, and become real-life friends with some. I wanted to know if it was awkward to meet people IRL after having friendships that are strictly digital. “I feel like, since we have the same interests, we become instant friends,” Abbey says. “And then hanging out IRL, you find out more about their personal life and other interests and it brings you even closer.” When things don’t click quite as well, you simply don’t make plans again, she says.
This situation seems opposite of the one Morris described on Longform — instead of standing around saying, “Did you watch this? No, how about this?” Abbey and her friends spent months figuring out exactly which stories they have in common before meeting and knew they would have plenty to discuss.
Do I think all friendships should begin online? No. If anything, talking to eight kind strangers on the subway made me want to be more open to the people in my physical proximity. But finding friends online is also good. I think using shows and movies as a way to connect is great, whether you’re breaking the ice with a stranger or hosting a salon with your best friends to discuss Russian Doll. Loving TV and movies can mean quoting lines from John Mulaney’s standup specials, or using PEN15 as a way to start a conversation with someone you trust about adolescent trauma. As long as you’re connecting with someone, you’re doing it right.