Earlier this week, Plex caused some uproar when its “Discover Together” feature began to surprise users, emailing their friends and media server compatriots with their watch history. The feature seems like a superfluous bell and/or whistle to the rig-your-own Netflix-style streaming service, which allows you to make your own media servers to stream content you own or have downloaded to a TV or similar.
The emails in particular are called the “Week in Review”. To many who were just using the platform as a way to store all their totally-legally-downloaded anime, they felt like an overstep of privacy. Users called it an “opt-out” system, which—as you’re about to find out, is technically not the case, but only in the barest terms.
I’ve received a statement from Plex, which maintains that its Discover Together feature—which had been catching users unaware—is opt-in. “Based on the comments in the forums and Reddit, users who were ‘unaware’ that their watch activity was being shared to friends and family may have clicked through these settings during the onboarding process without reading their selections.”
Plex has further clarified this in a forum post, though its definitions haven’t exactly been sitting well with its users. To Plex’s credit, the ‘onboarding process’ is pretty explicit about sharing information with your friends. There is a degree of responsibility the user has to not just click through every screen they see to get to the latest episode of Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End or whatever.
To Plex’s discredit, there’s one sentence in that forum post that really doesn’t scan: “As noted on the page, everyone’s privacy settings are PRIVATE at the time this page is viewed. If you save the choice on that page without changing anything, your privacy settings will be changed to the values shown on the screen which allows your friends to view your activity.”
(Image credit: Plex)
So, to explain the screenshot above: it says that the settings below are currently set to private. Which is true, but only by technicality. If you click “Finish” without changing anything, they will no longer be set to private. This is a disaster of design because anyone skimming could reasonably assume that clicking finish would keep their settings private, not friends-only.
This reeks of a dark pattern: an interface deliberately designed to trick or mislead the user. I’m not saying Plex did this on purpose to get people to use its weird social media system, never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance, and all that—but this is like burying a rake under a bunch of grass and then being shocked when a guest steps on it.
The words “opt-in” are also being stretched to their limit, as one user points out: “If my settings were private at the time this page is viewed, then the choices presented on the page should have shown the settings as ‘Private,’ ‘Private,’ ‘Private,’ and ‘Private,’ and I would have to actively change the setting to ‘Friends Only’.”
It is the user’s fault if they click through all of this gaff without reading it, sure. But if your assumption is ‘well, they must be convinced!’ then you’ve arguably not created an opt-out system. Your average person may very well click through a bunch of snazzy prompts that look like update posts because they had a long day at work, or something.
Plex mentions in the statement that it is “having conversations about making changes to the onboarding page” following the user revolt, “We understand that some users are upset by the current design of this page, and we are listening closely to their feedback.”
It also mentions that it’ll make those onboarding clearer about what the digest emails entail, noting “these emails were included during the beta period and were well received by users.” Which, yes. I can imagine a service would be well-received if someone opted into a beta and used it willingly.
I can’t help wondering whether this whole fuss could’ve been avoided by designing the feature for the average user, rather than some idealised angel who has read and understood every T&Cs page they’ve ever been presented with.