Binge-watching sitcoms and old movies is all that Netflix is portrayed to bring: entertainment. What many people may not realize, or take advantage of, is that Netflix has given us an amazing opportunity for more than that. An opportunity that we have never had in such an easily accessible way before: the ability to learn and to be educated.
I’m talking, of course, about documentaries.
Before Netflix, people’s access to documentaries were mostly limited to seeing the right one on TV at the right time. While there are some free websites to see certain types of documentaries, Netflix opens up an opportunity to learn and to understand in all areas.
There are documentaries on nature, food, philosophy and religion. Documentaries that give us the ability to see the side of business or allow us entry to thoughts that we may not have access to on our own.
Some examples of well-known and informative documentaries are “Food, Inc.,” about the intricacies of our food system, or “Blackfish,” about SeaWorld’s mistreatment of orca whales. Both of these are what I would call “fad documentaries;” they shocked and awed the audience so much that they became quite popular.
According to a February 2014 CNN article “Months after ‘Blackfish’ airs, debate over orcas continues,” approximately 21 million people watched “Blackfish” when it aired on CNN. That’s 21 million people in one sitting.
Now the documentary is on Netflix and reaches that entire community as well. In fact, the documentary came out in 2013 and by the end of 2014, SeaWorld’s stock prices dropped 60 percent, according to a Washington Post article, titled, “Chart: What the documentary ‘Blackfish’ has done to SeaWorld.”
Documentaries change the world. Documentaries have the power to bring about change in people, policies and practices. They have the power to make SeaWorld stock prices drop 60 percent. Netflix has brought this power of change into your bedroom, your living room and your dorm room.
Not only do we have the ability to know more about our society, we have the ability to use the information to change our own behaviors.
We also now have the opportunity to choose what we learn about. We have a vast selection at our fingertips. Netflix has 44 million subscribers, according to an article on the Radio Times website titled “How many people are watching Netflix?” This means that at least 44 million people have the opportunity to explore the issues and stories of the world surrounding them rather than just seek entertainment.
There are documentaries about our excessive use of plastic, a material that never degrades on its own, and documentaries about the prison systems and the stories within them; these are topics you just can’t Google and get a full appreciation for.
When TV first came out, people often argued how it was going to be used: entertainment or education? Very obviously, entertainment seemed to have won out in that battle. The same does not have to be true with Netflix, however. Documentaries provide a window for us to see the outside world that we normally can’t.
We don’t normally see the way our food is made or where our trash goes. We typically pick it out at the store and throw it away, leaving the rest up to those responsible. But what if they aren’t being so responsible? It’s something we should all be aware of.
Think of our prison systems: what goes on on the inside? Unless you’ve been in prison it’s hard to say, but documentaries can help us understand these more hidden societal issues, expose them or even address something controversial and explain why it’s actually not as big of an issue as we think.
There are so many things that we don’t know, and it’s important to accept that and maybe even try to do something about it. Netflix has brought us possibilities and convenience for home education that we have never had before. For the first time, we have the opportunity to purposely watch a documentary about something we are curious about. If everyone watched a documentary every couple weeks, there would be so much more information in the whole of society that change might just be possible.
The other thing about documentaries is that when you watch them, especially ones that expose the truth about societal problems, it can make you feel a deeper sense of purpose. If you learn about something you are really passionate about, it might give you the passion and the drive to actually do something.
You only have so much spare energy that you can really afford to have influenced by the media you watch. Instead of giving it up to crappy TV shows and the random commercials that run with them, you could give that spare energy to films and show that focus on subjects and interests that you choose. Dedicate that energy, those thoughts, to the betterment of yourself and society instead of to strange and loud commercials trying to sell you things.
Obviously I’m not saying no more Netflix sitcoms or movies; I love them too. But rather, don’t use them as an influential factor in life. Don’t look at the pretty sitcom star and think, “I want to be like her.” We need to be looking at the documentary hosts, creators, researchers and social change activists that take part in documentaries and think, “Oh wow, I want to be like them.”
As ridiculous as it may be to use a Dr. Seuss quote, one from “The Lorax,” really does ring true for society: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is ever going to get better. It’s not.”
That’s what will change society. That’s what will make the world we live in a better place, and the opportunity is literally at the tips of our fingers. It’s more available than it ever has been because of Netflix.
They say that seeing is believing, and a good documentary is seeing the way the world works through different aspects and with different problems. There are problems in the world. It’s time to see it. It’s time to believe it. And it’s time to change it. Let’s take full advantage of our new educational opportunities.
Emily Moore is a sophomore in mass communications.