By TEDDY WAYNE MAY 2, 2014
When Beyoncé released, without warning, 17 videos around midnight on Dec. 13, millions of fans rejoiced. As a more casual listener of Ms. Knowles, I balked at the onslaught of new material and watched a few videos before throwing in the towel.
Likewise, when Netflix, in one fell swoop, made complete seasons of “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” available for streaming, I quailed at the challenge, though countless others happily immersed themselves in their worlds of Washington intrigue and incarcerated women.
Then there is the news, to which floodgates are now fully open thanks to the Internet and cable TV: Flight 370, Putin, Chris Christie, Edward Snowden, Rob Ford, Obamacare, “Duck Dynasty,” “bossy,” #CancelColbert, conscious uncoupling. When presented with 24/7 coverage of these ongoing narratives from an assortment of channels — traditional journalism sites, my Facebook feed, the logout screen of my email — I followed some closely and very consciously uncoupled from others.
Had these content providers released their offerings in the old media landscape, à la carte rather than in an all-you-can-eat buffet, the prospect of a seven course meal might not have seemed so daunting. I could handle a steady drip of one article a day about Mr. Ford in a newspaper. But after two dozen, updated every 10 minutes, plus scores of tweets, videos and GIFs that keep on giving, I wanted to forget altogether about Toronto’s embattled mayor.
While media technology is now catching up to Americans’ penchant for overdoing it and finding plenty of willing indulgers, there are also those like me who recoil from the abundance of binge culture.
In the last decade, media entertainment has given far more freedom to consumers: watch, listen to and read anything at anytime. But Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice,” argues that our surfeit of consumer choices engenders anxiety, not satisfaction, and sometimes even a kind of paralysis.
His thesis (which has its dissenters) applies mostly to the profusion of options within a single set: for instance, the challenge of picking out salad dressing from 175 varieties in a supermarket. Nevertheless, it is also germane to the concept of bingeing, when 62 episodes of “Breaking Bad” wait overwhelmingly in a row like bottles of Newman’s Own on a shelf.
Alex Quinlan, 31, a firstyear Ph.D. student in poetry at Florida State University, said he used to spend at least an hour every morning reading the news and “putting off my responsibilities,” as well as binge watching shows. He is busier now, and last fall had trouble installing an Internet connection in his home, which effectively “rewired my mediaconsumption habits,” he said. “I’m a lot more disciplined. Last night I watched one episode of ‘House of Cards’ and went to bed. A year ago, I probably would’ve watched one, gotten another beer, then watched two more.”
Even shorter-term bingeing can seem like a major commitment, because there is a distorting effect of receiving a large chunk of content at once rather than getting it piecemeal. To watch one Beyoncé video a week would eat as much time as watching all in one day, but their unified dissemination makes them seem intimidatingly movie length (which they are, approximately) rather than like a series of four minute clips.
I also experienced some first-world anxiety last year with the release of the fourth season of “Arrested Development.” I had devoured the show’s first three seasons, parceled out in 22 minute weekly installments on Fox as well as on DVD, where I would watch episodes I had already seen (in pre-streaming days, binge watching required renting or owning a copy, which was more like a contained feast). But when Netflix uploaded 15 new episodes totaling 8.5 hours on May 26, I was not among those queuing up for it. It took me some time to get around to the show, and once I had started, the knowledge of how many episodes stretched in front of me, at my disposal whenever I wanted, proved off-putting.
This despite the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses quality to binge viewing. If everyone is quickly exhausting every new episode of a show, and writing and talking about it the next day, it’s easy to feel left out of the conversation if you haven’t kept pace. And sometimes when you’re late to the party, you decide to stay home instead.
Because we frequently gorge when left to our own WiFi enabled devices, the antiquated methods of “scheduling our information consumption” may have been healthier, if less convenient, said Clay Johnson, 36, the author of “The Information Diet.” He recalled rushing home after choir practice when he was younger to catch “Northern Exposure” on TV.
“That idea is now preposterous,” he said. “We don’t have appointment television anymore. Just because we can watch something all the time doesn’t mean we should. Maybe we should schedule it in a way that makes sense around our daily lives.”
“It’s a lot like food,” he added. “You see some people become infoanorexic, who say the answer is to unplug and not consume anything. Much like an eating disorder, it’s just as unhealthy a decision as bingewatching the news and media. There’s a middle ground of people who are saying, ‘I need to start treating this form of input in my life like a conscious decision and to be informed in the right way.’ ”
For example, some news fanatics, Mr. Johnson said, are breaking free from reading only perspectives they agree with, a practice that can be both compulsive and unedifying — not to mention emotionally damaging, said Mr. Quinlan, the doctoral student.
“With the things that get us to really crave the news, the tenor of the story tends to have a negative impact on the way we see the world more generally,” he said, referring to the controversial and scandalous subjects that draw in chronic readers and viewers. “We become more cynical.”
Does he regard his own bingeing on these topics as escapist?
“Absolutely,” he said. “You forget about your life for 30 minutes while you read about Chris Christie’s implosion.”
Joshua Ferris’s forthcoming novel, “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” is about “the obsessive-compulsive nature of your own personality emerging through these platforms, and disliking the person who is taking advantage of them,” he said. Mr. Ferris, 39, confessed to bingeing on news, TV and YouTube videos, though he recently took a sixmonth purgative sabbatical.
“The person who binges is the laziest and most craven version of me,” he said. “I fall down the rabbit hole and berate myself for having done so. If I have spare time, I’d like to think I would choose to spend it parenting my son. But instead it’s, ‘You watch the iPad and I’ll watch Netflix,’ and suddenly I’m not being an ideal parent.”
Bingeing is also becoming a tactic of the book industry, though only in genre fiction. It would be hard to imagine publishing new literary titles from an author at a fast enough rate to be deemed binge-worthy, with the notable exception of Joyce Carol Oates. I’m grateful that Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” six Proustian volumes of autobiographical novels sprawling out over 3,500 pages, is being translated sequentially from Norwegian into English.
As for Mr. Quinlan, the former TV binger, he’s channeled his habit to a more highbrow outlet.
“I’m now bingereading scholarly articles on the poetry of John Ashbery,” he said.
Teddy Wayne is the author of the novels “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” and “Kapitoil.” Future Tense appears monthly.
A version of this article appears in print on May 4, 2014, on page ST2 of the New York edition with the headline: Life Is Streaming Past You.