When the commercial web was new, its acolytes were eager to show it off. The scientific-research and literary communities, where the web originated, envisioned it as a nonlinear platform for authorship and publishing. But the dot-coms and the advertisers and the interactive agencies saw the web as a new kind of billboard or video screen. To them, it was the fusion of the television and the CD-ROM more than that of the computer and the library.
Flash was the ultimate realization of the web capitalist’s dream. The tool made it easy to create interactive animations suitable for fast download online.
It was profoundly overused. Websites became motion-graphics monstrosities when simple text and images would have sufficed. The worst of the era’s ills was the Flash intro, an animated sequence the user had to suffer through before being allowed into the site they intended to visit. Soon, the “skip intro” button appeared—designers’ desperate attempt to show off while also stepping out of the way.
Twenty years later, “skip intro” is back, and in an unlikely place: on Netflix, where it is making television title sequences optional. Revisiting the original “skip intro” offers both context and concern for Netflix’s move. Then, as now, starting up a media experience was sometimes annoying. But that friction also helped isolate experiences in the world from those on the computer or the television.
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Animation had been possible on web pages before Flash—originally called FutureSplash Animator—was created in 1996. First came Shockwave, the browser plug-in that ran content from Macromedia’s popular Director software. Director had become a popular authoring tool in the early 1990s. As multimedia creators transitioned to the web, Shockwave allowed a transfer of the skills (and sometimes the content) the platform had afforded.
But Director was built to make material for capacious CD-ROMs. That didn’t translate well to the web, which most users still accessed from slow dial-up connections. At this time, many users didn’t even have multimedia computers with CD-ROM drives. PCs were still tools for business and home use, made mostly to run productivity software.
For this reason, website intros were some of the first graphics computer users of the ’90s encountered. Games were available, of course, but they were still hard to run on PCs and served a niche market besides. Before Flash, a PC user might have encountered on-screen animation only in the form of screen savers. But even then, a package like After Dark, with its flying toasters, was still a performance stretch for many machines.
Website intros, by contrast, were small enough to download quickly and simple enough to animate smoothly. They offered an early taste of a life with computer graphics—an experience that’s now ubiquitous and constant.
Flash intros were hokey, sure, but not entirely unnecessary. In some cases, they acted as loading screens while more content crept through the modem. But they also transitioned new users into the mode of interaction that graphics-oriented interfaces demanded. Just like a television intro eases the viewer into a show. The difference was that flash intros were easing the user into the new experience of actionable interfaces.
Furthermore, at the time the metaphor for internet browsing was physical. Cyberspace. The information superhighway. Netscape, the first popular browser, billed itself as a “navigator.” Websites were “sites” because they felt like places. Faraway ones, that downloaded and rendered slowly, making transit an apt metaphor for access.
This was also the era of the home page as destination. Today, most people access material on the web from links on search engines, apps, or social media. But in the ’90s, surfers typed in URLs to access websites, and they entered through the front door. The whole experience was new, and an intro was a way to welcome someone—an earnest, if corny, vector-animated welcome mat that offered hospitality and reception. Domain names were treated like real estate, another reason the metaphor of a welcoming entrance felt logical.
When Flash websites were popular, the best intros transitioned the user from watching to clicking, for example by revealing portions of the interface at the end of the noninteractive sequence. This was a short-lived necessity. Eventually, and soon, everyone figured it out. And Flash intros became unwelcome indulgences. “Skip intro” offered a compromise, but the whole animated-intro genre was transitional. Soon enough it was retired, mostly, and then forgotten.
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Suddenly, “skip intro” is back. I first noticed it when watching Netflix on my television—an actual television, where I wasn’t accustomed to that sort of interaction. As the title sequence for a series like Stranger Things begins, a small button appears near the corner of the screen: “Skip intro.” Tapping the button on the remote advances playback to the end of the credits.
The feature clearly seems built for binge-watching, which has become the default mode of watching original content on Netflix. Because an entire season is released at once, viewers can slurp it up in one weekend—or one night, even. When viewing hour after hour of House of Cards, there’s nothing worse than having to take a break while a lumbering sequence recites the stars and producers. It’s not the only change Netflix has made to promote binging—the software also skips the episode recap if it detects that the viewer is binging.
As convenient as the feature is, I feel some lamentation when skipping title sequences. Apart from fulfilling an obligation to credit top-billing talent and executives, the opener also sets the tone for a show. In short order, it puts the viewer in the right mood for what’s to come, transitioning them from a different program or another activity.
In truth, the title sequence has been a pariah on Netflix for some time. The opening credits for Netflix-exclusive shows invite skipping. They are mostly forgettable. Mindhunter’s opener is monotonous, failing to sell the intrigue of David Fincher’s series even despite a series of subliminal images hidden between frames. Some Netflix productions, like rom-com Love, barely have a title sequence to skip. (The opener to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, by contrast, is top-notch—better than the show itself, these days.)
It’s a far cry from what Daniel Victor, writing in The New York Times last year, called the “era of elaborate opening titles.” For Victor, HBO epitomized this age, with Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, and True Detective offering particularly memorable examples. These sequences pick up where the great film openers of the 1950s and ’60s left off—the titles of Saul Bass, for example, or the James Bond films. In these cases, the opening sequences do aesthetic work.
The Flash web intro aspired to the aesthetic ambition of the cinematic opener. It hoped to set the stage for what followed, both cleansing the user’s palate and preparing it for a new experience. That aspiration turned out to be misplaced. Websites, and the apps that followed them, aren’t places after all. Nor are they unique, aesthetic domains one enters and leaves. They are tools, mostly, built to allow users to slip into them with minimum friction. And often, to discourage them from leaving again.
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Netflix’s step toward abandoning the opening sequence might suggest that television is becoming a place you can’t leave, too. Even reviving the name “skip intro” feels like a slight on title sequences, as if they were all akin to bad restaurant websites. Today, entrances and exits are for chumps. YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook all offer continuous streams of material that hold the viewer fast to the service. As the internet’s new Hollywood, Netflix has a special role to play in this media ecosystem. It has fused the compulsion of using software with the absorption of watching television.
The result feels like the ultimate realization of David Foster Wallace’s “entertainment,” the weaponized television of Infinite Jest. Back then, it was a fictional, futuristic take on television, conceived at the time of the early web for the era that might succeed it. Wallace got the compulsive danger right, but misplaced its form. It’s why the writer Tom Bissell calls Infinite Jest the first great internet novel. Unlike Neal Stephenson or William Gibson, Wallace had predicted that a slurry of media would be more crippling than narcotic. That’s what Netflix serves up: an ooze of computers and television. The compulsion of apps and the escapist fantasy of TV combine in a self-destructive cycle: Apps make the consistent attention paid a TV show seem like a virtuous kind of focus, and constant television makes the escape back into apps seem worldly.
It might seem a little upside-down, as it were, to hang all that on a change as simple as adding a “skip intro” button to television title sequences. But the web demonstrated that the purpose of an introduction that can be bypassed isn’t to provide options or satisfy needs. It’s to offer a transition period that conceals what comes next: a removal of the entire threshold between computer and world, which makes gentle slithers between media a way of life. So, skip your intros while you got ’em, fellow streamers. Stranger things are surely coming.