How Blockbuster was superior to Netflix


It's a Friday night in the late 1990s and my teenaged friend group are bored. We're not cool enough to hang about in the park drinking cider. And we're not nerdy enough to play D&D. We don't have enough money to go to the cinema.

What we do have is a Blockbuster card and, between us, just enough cash to rent a newly released movie. Eight of us pile into the local Blockbuster and begin to scavenge the shelves. DVDs have yet to appear in our sleepy town, so we hold up chunky VHS boxes for appraisal.

"The English Patient?" "Rubbish."

"Trainspotting?" "Seen it."

"The Full Monty?" "My mum won't let me watch that."

"Titanic?" "Oooooh! Go on then!"

I took the empty carcass up to the desk. The incredibly worldly-wise 19 year old looked at us disdainfully. "Sorry mate, out of stock."

You see, hard as it may be to believe, the local Blockbuster franchise had underestimated the popularity of Titanic. They'd purchased a dozen copies to rent out. Once those walked out the door, that was it. We could ask them to ring us when a tape was returned - but we'd be at the bottom of a long waiting list.

So we leafed through a few display racks and went home with the kid's film about a genie, "Shazaam". It wasn't very good, as I recall.

If only Netflix were like that! Imagine if you tried to watch Stranger Things and were told that too many people were streaming the first episode. Netflix will notify you when there's a slot available. In the meantime, why not watch "Clarissa Explains It All"?

Wouldn't that be brilliant! Netflix could restrict demand, make things artificially scarce, and just generally make a worse user experience for everyone.

Wait... no... that'd be shit!

And yet, that's exactly how digital library books work in the UK!

Screenshot from an online library. Two Agatha Christie books are available to borrow. The other two have a wait list.

Look, perhaps a Netflix for books wouldn't work; it's harder to read than it is to stick on TV in the background. But there's a healthy library scene in the UK. Authors get paid when people borrow their books. So why are libraries restricted to only loaning out a limited number of copies at once?

There's a part of me - a very small part - which can see the utility in this. If everyone could borrow the latest Dan Brown smash-hit all at once, would they ever explore any further? When you're told "Sorry, we don't have that - but you might like..." it could expand your reading horizons.

But that's a weak argument. With an endless supply of books, people can choose what they want to read, when they want to read it.

There is no digital scarcity. We need to rid the world of this analogue thinking.


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9 thoughts on “How Blockbuster was superior to Netflix”

  1. said on mastodon.se:

    @Edent that is how library books are in the entire world unfortunately.Also the prices that libraries pay for their patrons privilege is horrendously expensive. A single loan for one book for one patron can sometimes cost more than the ebook would cost for the patron to "own" it.Our local library have such a contract where they don't have limits on amount of users, but instead the budget for a month is consumed in just a few days.

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  2. Merton Hale says:

    I agree with your premise, but I think it may be that when a public library "buys" a digital copy of a book, they may be limited as to the number of "copies" they can lend out at any one time. Thus it is the copyright holder that is causing the problem. Not sure about this but seem to vaguely remember being told that by my local library (in the US).

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  3. Eric says:

    Do you have something like interlibrary loan in the UK? In the US, often when a book isn't available at one library branch, it may be available at a neighboring system. So you can request it, they'll ship it to your local library, and you can check it out from there. Usually it takes a few days. And it probably doesn't work for popular books, only books that are less common and so not available at all libraries.

    But on a more related note, Netflix doesn't have everything either. If you want to watch a Disney movie, it's likely that they won't have any copies to stream. They might have some available on real spinning media which they can mail, but they're unlikely to have an infinite supply either, just enough to cover how popular they believe it will be.

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  4. said on mastodon.me.uk:

    @Edent I bet the eBook sellers know that they will get people just buying a copy if they don’t want to wait for the library copy to be available so as someone else mentions don’t allow the libraries to lend unlimited copies. It is frustrating though and I’m not sure the algorithms are that great for suggesting alternative books. I wish I could sync my account with Bookwyrm or something to give me recommendations (I use BorrowBox from Hampshire Libraries)

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