2021年2月24日 星期三

On Tech: This website is my pandemic BFF

Plus, is hatred of Airbnb inevitable?

This website is my pandemic BFF

Hoi Chan

I have two essential pandemic companions: cheese and a website called JustWatch.

JustWatch isn't particularly fancy, but it tells me where I can watch a particular show or movie that I'm looking for online. That doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is.

When I read recently about a decade-old British comedy series, "Miranda," JustWatch showed me that it was streaming for free on the Roku Channel. It identified which episodes of a fun British home-building show, "Grand Designs," are on Netflix and which are missing. I wouldn't have found this out otherwise. Even Google doesn't spit out this information.

JustWatch isn't perfect, and it's not curing the coronavirus. But it (mostly) solves a small annoyance of at-home life.

The website exists because streaming entertainment is glorious — and an unruly mess. Companies care more about their bottom lines than their customers, so as streaming services scatter entertainment around like confetti, it's often impossible to figure out how they work together.

Mostly, I want to revel in what works about JustWatch.

David Croyé, the company's chief executive, told me that JustWatch computers constantly probe under the hood of more than 1,000 streaming video services and digital download catalogs from companies like Apple and Amazon. There are tens of thousands of entertainment options that constantly change and vary by country.


Croyé said that JustWatch made it "easier for people to navigate the jungle of content and streaming services."

Lots of companies say they do this. Very few do.

Apple touts its online video app called TV as a hub for people to watch anything on their streaming services. Nope. Apple doesn't catalog options from Netflix, for example. You'll encounter similar gaps or confusion hunting for stuff on streaming gadgets like Amazon's Fire TV. It just doesn't work.

Why? Money.

Netflix doesn't want to let competitors like Apple or Amazon peer into its entertainment roster — or it wants to get paid for it. No streaming company wants to point you to "Love & Basketball" on a rival service. Google searches for streaming shows can return unreliable junk.

JustWatch is an island of reprieve, partly because it's not powerful enough for anyone to fear.

It won't tell you what's on regular TV tonight, and it makes mistakes. Margaret Lyons, my colleague who writes the Watching newsletter, uses JustWatch "constantly," she said, but finds it sometimes says shows are available places they're not. (Margaret also uses Flixable, a searchable database for several streaming services.)


Other companies like Roku started out promising to be neutral streaming helpers and didn't stay that way. JustWatch could have that problem.

It makes money by harnessing data on what people watch to tailor entertainment companies' strategies. Sony's movie studio might use JustWatch's information to target online movie trailers to horror film fans.

It can be a red flag when companies make money from data rather than people using their products. You could imagine that JustWatch might steer us to watch "Paddington" on Hulu because the company pays for the recommendation. Croyé said that it would be counterproductive if JustWatch betrayed our trust that way.

There is still no universal guide to the new TV, because streaming entertainment is a mess. (Have I mentioned this?) But for now, JustWatch feels like the next best thing.

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Is hatred of Airbnb inevitable?

My colleague Erin Griffith's recent article about people who rent out their homes on Airbnb made me wonder again if there is something fundamentally broken with many of the digital services that we use.

Erin spoke to homeowners who felt that Airbnb's pandemic-related refunds to renters hurt their livelihoods. It made some of them realize how little power they had.

It can be hard to feel sympathy for people who own nice homes and rent them on Airbnb. But Erin's reporting pointed out an underlying flaw with practically all of the digital matchmakers like Airbnb that connect willing sellers and buyers: People eventually hate their guts.

Expedia matches hotels with people who want a room. Hotels hate it. DoorDash connects restaurants with people who want a meal at home. Restaurants hate it, and couriers sometimes do, too. Lots of merchants who sell on Amazon feel they get the short end of the stick. Some app makers feel they get a raw deal from Apple.

What Erin heard from Airbnb hosts fits this pattern. The party that is offering something for sale often believes the middleman is charging them too much, making unfair rules or growing more powerful at their expense. It is all the same flavor of grievance.

And like some restaurants, hotels and app makers, unhappy Airbnb hosts told Erin that they wanted customers to come to them directly and skip the all-powerful matchmaker.

I don't know if it is possible to wean people off these middlemen. Finding a bunch of restaurants, places to stay or merchants in one app is handy. And the complaints might be unjustified. Airbnb, the iPhone app store and DoorDash bring in huge numbers of customers who wouldn't be there otherwise.

But given how often at least one party in these matchmaking transactions grows to resent the arrangement, I wonder if any of this is sustainable.

(Full disclosure: My sister works for a hotel workers' union that has advocated for tighter regulation of Airbnb.)

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Before we go …

  • Routers are very boring but important: My colleague Brian X. Chen tested a crop of the new generation of Wi-Fi routers that promise to make our home internet connections zippier and more reliable. Brian's results weren't wow, but he has advice for us.
  • Everything is not fine with that Russian cyberattack: Members of Congress and corporate executives still aren't sure how Russia pulled off one of the most sophisticated computer hacks in history, my colleague David E. Sanger reported. And it's possible the attackers are still hanging out in government and corporate computer networks.
  • Facebook is a private State Department: ProPublica reported that Facebook executives sided with Turkey's demand to block material on the military's attacks on the Kurdish minority rather than risk being shut down in the country.

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