Gone in a Quibi: A case for anthropology in business?

Gone in a Quibi: A case for anthropology in business?

Quibi founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman in the company’s office (fortune.com)

Quibi’s demise—just six months after the premium short-form smartphone-focused streaming service went live—made headlines last week. Company founder (and former head of Walt Disney Studios) Jeffrey Katzenberg claimed the COVID-19 pandemic held sole responsibility for Quibi’s $1.8 billion failure. As is usually the case, the reality is much more complicated. The Quibi fiasco makes a good case, I think, for ethnographic research in business.

When Quibi launched in early April, my senior year of college had just moved online. Like everyone else I knew, I was figuring out what it meant to quarantine and work from home—washing groceries, juggling Zoom calls and classes, baking bread, and of course, watching a lot of TV. I was also writing up the results of my senior thesis research project on prairie restoration in Midwestern urban parks. I had spent most of 2019 analyzing survey data and talking with residents in my town about what they thought of the Parks Department’s recent “re-wilding” initiative. They really didn’t like “overgrown” grass in their parks, it turned out, and the reasons why were complex and had to do with ideas about place attachment, aesthetic order, and a very specific sort of nature-culture relationship. If the Parks Department had commissioned a study like mine before deciding to reintroduce prairie areas into the parks, they may have had an easier time targeting relevant stakeholders with relevant information (why prairies are good for the city and the environment, what the process of reintroduction would look like, etc.) to avoid the backlash they ended up getting. All this is to say, ethnographic research is a pretty good tool for explaining what’s happening and why in a given place and, in turn, informing decisions.

During Quibi’s early days, I remember chatting (over Zoom) with a friend at length about the bizarreness of this new “Netflix challenger.” Though I never subscribed to Quibi (a recent college grad can only afford so many streaming services), I did see a lot of the company’s ads. Katzenberg spent $63 million on marketing during Quibi’s short life—including on a series of Super Bowl ads depicting characters in life-threatening situations where they had “just a Quibi” of time left (to live?), just enough to watch a “quick bite” of TV on their phones. Watching an actor playing the president’s advisor warn her that an asteroid would hit Earth in “two to three Quibis, tops” felt like being force-fed a corporate neologism. The logic of the core concept—10-minute or less TV show episodes—also seemed hard to pin down. As my friend put it—“who watches a show they enjoy and says, ‘you know, I’d really like less of this.’” Especially during the pandemic, I know I’ve gravitated toward longform content—movies, hours-long podcasts, etc. Furthermore, in Quibi’s ideal use case—liminal time spent waiting in line or commuting—people seem to be doomscrolling Twitter or watching truly short-form (10 second not 10 minute) free content on TikTok and Snapchat. The question everyone seemed to be asking this summer was “who’s actually watching Quibi?”

A bank robber stops for a “quick bite” in a Quibi superbowl ad (youtube.com)

Quibi’s executives banked a lot on their hunch that premium “quick bites” were exactly what young Americans wanted. They furnished a lavish 49,000-foot office and attracted big names—Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lopez, Chistoph Waltz, to name just a few—to produce shows with $100,000/minute budgets. From the beginning, the young company seemed to ooze hubris. A Vulture article asked why Katzenberg, a seasoned executive in his late 60s who doesn’t use social media and has his emails printed out by an assistant, believed he had “uniquely penetrating insight into the unacknowledged desires of young people.” Company insiders, quoted in the same article, said Katzenberg was incredibly dismissive of Quibi’s audience and claimed he “knew millennials better than millennials.” When asked “where’s the data” his response seemed to consistently be “go with your gut.” The Guardian called Quibi an “idea born in a LA conference room that will probably die in the real world.” And die it did.

Quibi turned out to be a “product not enough real people wanted” and “a solution to a problem that didn’t really exist.” There was probably a way to figure that out without spending about $2 billion—a way that involves data, not the gut. Netflix famously hired cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to visit binge watchers in their homes and figure them out. McCracken, like Tricia Wang and other tech anthropologists, believes in using qualitative ethnographic (“thick” and unquantifiable) data to contextualize quantitative “big” (quantifiable and generalizing) data that corporations typically use to inform decisions and design algorithms. In response to his research, Netflix began distributing shows whole seasons at a time (instead of episodes weekly) to facilitate the binging that McCracken found users loved so much. It seems like Quibi’s founders should have imitated their self-proclaimed competitors and conducted research (especially ethnographic research) to determine whether the product they planned to offer was one that people actually wanted.

Some have claimed that Netflix’s move to embrace anthropology was merely an attempt to put a human face on big data and “make its algorithmic future seem a little less dystopian.” Corporate anthropology is certainly a complicated and controversial issue. By suggesting Quibi’s founders could have hired someone like McCracken to go out into the world and study how people really consume short-form content and how they’d like to, I don’t mean to say it’s always anthropology’s duty to help businesses learn to run themselves better. Private-sector ethnography is certainly limited and can simplify and reduce “culture to mere consumerism” as many have argued in the past, but it can also counter algorithms and the quantification bias and empower consumers who are usually voiceless. In this case, it could have told Katzenberg what those consumers were shouting: “We don’t want this!” When billions of dollars are on the line, it only makes sense to take a few Quibis and do the research before renting the office space.