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Three attempts to make a Netflix Party work

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I tried Netflix Party. The results were mixed but the experience was the reward. It brought me closer to self-quarantining loved-ones.

The coronavirus lockdown destroyed my social life. I am fairly lucky to have my wife who keeps me company. Others may not be so fortunate with no one at their side to share the burden of the plight. With more than a fifth of the global population under lockdown it is only a matter of time until we see signs of the toll these protection measures have on people's mental health, especially those suffering from depression or similar.

So, what does a millennial do in the 21st century when he worries about anything? He goes online, with the hope of finding a perfect digital remedy. In my case I googled “online party during a pandemic” - I concede not the most prudent way to phrase my scholarly research question. 

The first search result is an article in the Metro, headlining: “I went to an online sex party during the coronavirus pandemic”. It’s not what I was looking for. The second weblink is about Zoom Parties. The concept is simple. People use the conference software Zoom and combine it with anything like virtual-happy-hours, coffee breaks, afternoon hangs, dance practices, yoga sessions – according to Zoom’s blog on Zoom Parties. Then I wonder why they forgot to mention the socially responsible Zoom sex parties or the Zoom fetish nights, which I read about earlier.

By now most office workers should have heard about Zoom. Either because you use it to chat with colleagues or because you read about the PM’s faux pas. Boris Johnson raised security concerns when he tweeted a picture of a virtual cabinet meeting alongside its meeting ID number. In the past, Zoom struggled with security flaws. Vulnerability allowed attackers to remove attendees from meetings or spoof messages from users or to hijack shared screens. The company promised vulnerabilities were being addressed. Reading about cyber-security concerns killed the mood for me and Zoom Parties became suddenly less interesting.

The next search result seemed more promising. A party on Netflix. My wife and I have spent hours binge-watching tacky American sitcoms from the 1990s, why shouldn’t we share the fun with our closest friends? She reminded me quickly why. But perhaps with other movies, we agreed to give it a shot and share the experiment with friends. The next thing I knew, I was signed up for three different Netflix Party dates in the coming days. 

Netflix Party, it’s like a pyjama VHS party in the 90s, except without the constant verbal interruption by your best friend who couldn’t keep his mouth shut during the most important scenes. Technically speaking Netflix Party is a Google Chrome extension that allows you to watch Netflix remotely with friends - or how a Netflix ad puts it: "movie nights with that long-distance special someone” - how cheesy.  It promises synchronised video playback and group chat.

The first video date was with friends based in New York, an intimate group of family and friends. They tried it before. There were a number of couples with small children. That should have been a bright red warning sign. The movies to watch: ‘The Incredibles 2’. If you don’t know it, it’s probably not for you (assuming you don’t have kids).

Netflix Party allows you to chat while watching. Before entering ’the party’ you choose an alter ego icon. There is a batman emoji, the pizza icon or the cookie icon. I don’t understand how to represent a pizza, but anyway. The point is, the choice is limited. This makes some people choose the same profile emoji. This can be irritating. You have to remember who is who. It is annoying if someone chooses the same icon as Dave or John.  As mentioned, there were children in the background. My wife and I trod carefully on what text messages we contributed via the chat window. We couldn’t just joke about anything - although the movie gave luring impetus for adult quips. In a circle with babies and grandparents, naturally, much of the discussion centred around baby stuff: nappies and occasionally parents’ responsibility. Since we don’t have children yet it really wasn't that much of a thrill. The feedback here: choose your Netflix Party groups wisely.

But hey, at least it worked. It is something I can’t say for the next date. With another friend circle in London we tried streaming 'The Fugitive' with Harrison Ford, an action-charged movie from the early 90s. Before kick-off the nightmare began. We couldn’t get the tech to work. Many of our friends have large LCD screens hanging from their walls. But Netflix Party likes laptops. The irony: most of these friends are tech-savvy people who work in tech start-ups. After trying in vain we ended up synchronising Netflix manually – by Whatsapping each other: ‘guys, we all press play at 8:50 pm, OK!!!’. It defeated the purpose. Some people slightly ahead in the movie spoiled some scenes. 

It took two mediocre experiences to finally work like a charm. We hosted it ourselves, chose a funny movie for adults from the 80s and only invited my wife’s sister and her hilarious boyfriend based in San Francisco. This meant they had to watch ’The Naked Gun’ in the middle of the day because they are eight hours behind UK time. But since every day feels like a Sunday in times of Covid-19, they agreed. 

Funny, short, comments throughout the movie really lifted the experience. Here, etiquette is vital. Don’t send long or sobering messages. If too long they can distract from hilarious scenes, although some scenes in the The Naked Gun definitely didn’t age well.

The bottom line is this. Halfway across the world Netflix Party brought us closer together. The fact that Netflix Parties have a certain date and time attached to it adds to the experience. A lockdown introduced lots of confusion into our lives. To have a time to adhere to helps to introduce structure and supports us mentally. The texting itself may also help with mental health. A paper from 2017 found evidence that receiving short text messages can be advantageous to a patient’s mental and physical well-being. I doubt the researcher had the concept of a Netflix Party in mind, but anyway. The point is social interactions can lift the spirit.

From a cyber-security angle, I wonder if it is safe? I reached out to an expert. Matt Walmsley from Vectra, a cyber-security company, says he checked out Netflix Party after his 14-year-old daughter tried hosting one with a friend. Despite the teenager’s appalling experience, Matt points out Netflix Party’s Chrome plug-in used to be open source until it was maintained privately. This means it made the code more transparent. While one doesn’t always know who contributed to the codebase there is a common supervisory element that could help to avoid malicious code. On the contrary, Chrome plug-ins were found to be used by attackers to infect users’ systems with malicious software in the past. One piece of Matt’s advice is to not use your corporate laptops to host Netflix Parties. I made a mental note of that. A VPN generally helps, too. Not so much with an encrypted IP address, but to watch the same movies with friends from other countries.

Whether and which virtual parties work best for you, you have to decide for yourself. I had to get used to Netflix Party and its etiquette. It took a few tries to have a flawless experience. In the end it won’t replace real-personal contact, but at least now our friends have no excuse for not watching tacky American 90s sitcoms with us.

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