Netflix was heralded as the future of television on the internet.

The streaming service has since become a media behemoth, capturing and monetising huge swathes of attention that it now leverage to turn new IP into billion dollar franchises overnight.

Netflix is valuable, but underneath is it really that revolutionary?

Despite the perception of radical innovation, when we examine the system closely really it becomes obvious that they really just pioneered a new distribution model rather than disrupting the essential structures of the media industry.

In the end, their output is still the product of a traditional media development process scaled by borderless distribution, with marketing across social channels driving to a main event and good old legal protections securing the intellectual property (IP).

It’s still TV or Film, it's just on the internet.

Netflix's true power comes from matching their output to the internet’s endemic capacity for virality as passionate online communities absorb the stories, adore the characters and produce endlessly creative fan fiction.

However with rights concentrated within Netflix or with an established IP holders such as Formula 1 licensing their sports or entertainment to the streamer.

Together they extract all the value - Netflix via subscriptions and the rights holder through increased attention and therefore revenues from fans.

Producers and fans get the rough end of the deal, they're simply a positive externality benefitting a few companies whose influence over popular culture seems unshakable.

Netflix is therefore a technology company that is ultimately still reliant on analogue rights - the same is true of Spotify and their relationship to the record labels who still dictate proceedings more or less.

These are after all tech companies not creative companies - they might know a lot about numbers, but they'll never have real soul.

As an underdog, Netflix began by funding the projects others wouldn't, however in their their quest to capture and monetise ever more attention, they have become ever more conservative, leveraging big data give people what they want.

This has resulted in two things.

Firstly any existing IP with some potential to reach pre-engaged audiences has become increasingly valuable leading to the endless rehashing of existing libraries of rights.

Secondly, it has led to commissioning driven by algorithms that leverage historical data to predict future 'hits' and 'de-risk' commissioning.

"People who watched Gladiator, also listen to Black Eyed Peas and are frequent purchasers of Whey protein..."

"Right we need an action movie set in the world of bodybuilding starring Russell Crowe and Will.I.Am..."

Unsurprisingly this ultimately leads to a creative dead end as the well of established IP runs dry and new shows end up becoming ever more formulaic.

Whilst AI promises much, in the end, LLMs will not just spit out the next Christopher Nolan or Inception despite the claims of those profiting from the hype.

They will however likely end up centralising ever more power in the incumbent tech and IP oligopolies, at the expense of - you've guessed it, creators and fans.

So maybe the question we should be asking is what is the native storytelling model of the internet - or perhaps through the web?

It is that approach that will give us some indication of what a genuinely novel form of storytelling may look like that matches networked media, with networked distribution and importantly networked rights.

Emergent Storytelling

An emergent behavior or emergent property can appear when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviors as a collective.

Television shows are ultimately the completed forms of emergent processes – namely the traditional development model.

A flash of inspiration may lead to concept, and one liner, then a paragraph pitch, next an overview, character development, scripts which then transform to visuals and storyboards.

Gradually, over many months and often years, a story, its players and its world emerges - a journey where pure imagination is drawn from the ether before being formed into atomic building blocks and a cohesive narrative scaffold.

Creepypasta was the name for a truly ‘internet’ form of storytelling - scary anecdotes or apocryphal stories that originally appeared on 4Chan and Reddit forums a decade or so ago.

These short stories with a discernible first author evolved rapidly, threaded and morphed with help and guidance from a decentralised community - some who enjoy the scare, others who maybe believe it’s real.

The Slender Man meme began in June 2009 when a competition on the comedy web forum Something Awful asked for ideas for a modern myth with which to terrify people.
One contributor, Eric Knudsen, using the pseudonym Victor Surge, responded by posting two faked photographs, purportedly from the mid-1980s, showing a tall, sinister figure lurking behind groups of children.
Knudsen attached some vague text suggesting 14 young people and the photographer had gone missing.
From the very beginning it was intended to be a meme - in the original sense of a replicating idea. Knudsen's fragmented post prompted a creative outburst. Eventually thousands of people were making drawings and writing stories.
The origins of Slenderman - BBC
Slender Man has appeared in video games, while Marble Hornets, the YouTube series featuring stories about him, is followed by more than half a million people.

One academic has described his development as an "open-sourcing of storytelling".
The origins of Slenderman - BBC

Slender Man is an example of a truly emergent narrative. With each addition and retelling, the line between real and fake becomes hopelessly confused - so much so that as the stories take on their own lives, they have even been known to cross back into mainstream media with horrific consequences.

On May 31, 2014, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, United States, two 12-year-old girls, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, lured their friend Payton Leutner into a forest and stabbed her 19 times in an attempt to appease the fictional character Slender Man.[2]
Slenderman - Wikipedia

Whilst a decade ago this seemed like an outlandish example, today it doesn't seem that surprising simply because our digital lives are fused ever more tightly to what we used to know as the real world.

Today it seems like the boundaries of each are increasingly fluid as we each struggle on a daily basis to establish just what is, or isn’t real.

Kickstarting emergence

Traditional media has at points attempted to engage with user generated content (UGC), with one of the most successful and creative examples being YouTube’s Life In A Day back in 2011.

The project saw director Kevin Macdonald and producer Ridley Scott kickstart a film that emerged from the content submitted by thousands of amateur creators around the world, each documenting their particular ‘life in a day’.

Macdonald began his "Around the world in 80,000 clips" article in The Guardian by posing the questions, "What do you love? What do you fear? What's in your pocket?" and explaining that "one day last summer, I asked ordinary people around the world to answer those three questions and spend a day filming their lives."
The 80,000 individual clips received amounted to 4,500 hours of electronic footage.

The results were extraordinary – a genuine example of brilliant traditional talent being matched to the power of co-creation.

Although the project is over a decade old, it still represents something of a cultural moment, marking the dawn of a new era of media creation, curation and collaboration between artist and a newly networked public.

Graph of Rights

If we see stories are simply graphs of meaning - a narrative consensus, then in a networked world, with limitless creative endeavour, the internet’s natural state for storytelling is clearly emergence and co-creation.

The remaining challenge is to attribute rights through this process.

With blockchains we now have network native accounting systems and the ability to track, credit and indeed reward contributions within a graph context.

What this means in practice is the new Slenderman, Life In A Day or indeed Stranger Things can be brought to life on entirely new foundations, with contribution, credit and value flowing through something akin to a consistently updating, upgrading and advancing graph of rights.

Now the brilliant storytellers can work with an emerging hive mind of community contributors, assigning network native rights to an ever expanding web of meaning and sharing value more equitably than was possible in the analogue era.

It's worth remembering that one of the greatest stories began with a single sketch.