Netflix is launching its own version of channel surfing

(Image credit: Elise Amendola / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

We've all been there: you boot up Netflix without a specific idea of what to watch, only to aimlessly scroll for so long that you just give up before finding anything. The streamer hears you, and might have a solution.

On Wednesday, Netflix rolled out a feature called "Play Something," which allows users to let the streamer decide what to put on for them. After hitting the "Play Something" button, a movie or an episode of a show will immediately start playing, though if you're not happy with the selection, you can simply hit "Play Something Else" to get another option pulled up.

"Sometimes the best choice is not to choose," an ad for the feature says.

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Vulture delved into the creation of the feature, which Netflix previously tested with some users and internally referred to as "Instant Joy." Todd Yellin, Netflix's vice-president of product, explained that the company hopes to eliminate "decision-making angst." When Vulture pointed out that the experience is similar to surfing through channels on TV, Netflix executive Cameron Johnson said that's very much intentional.

Unlike with TV, though, Netflix uses its algorithm to determine what users might want to see, so the selections aren't random. In fact, Netflix displays on screen a short explanation for why a title was picked, such as because it's similar to another show the user has watched.

"It's trying to take what is one of the best things about linear TV, which is immediate entertainment, but make it even better, because it's personalized," Johnson told Vulture.

One other difference between this feature and channel surfing, Vulture notes, is that Netflix's "Play Something" will always start the movie or show from the beginning — meaning the time-honored tradition of randomly catching the last half-hour of The Shawshank Redemption on TNT may, sadly, soon be a thing of the past. Brendan Morrow

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Brendan Morrow

Brendan is a staff writer at The Week. A graduate of Hofstra University with a degree in journalism, he also writes about horror films for Bloody Disgusting and has previously contributed to The Cheat Sheet, Heavy, WhatCulture, and more. He lives in New York City surrounded by Star Wars posters.