Self-hosted media app starts narcing on its own users' anime and X-rated habits with an 'opt-out' service, and it's going terribly

The logo for streaming platform Plex.
(Image credit: Plex, Inc)

Update: Plex has sent me a statement which argues the system is, in fact, "opt-in". Looking into the situation further, I observed enough issues with the system's integration (and the community response to those justifications) that I felt it warranted its own news post, which you can read by following that link.

In the interest of fairness I've edited the headline to reflect the ambiguity of the situation by putting "opt-out" in quotes. Given this whole thing's a mess, I'll leave it up to your judgement as to whether it counts.

There comes a time in every app, website, or even game's life where it works about as well as it should. Unfortunately, due to the way society is, the question then asked is: 'how do we make more money?' We've all seen it. Weird bells and whistles added to perfectly functioning services that take away more than they add.

History has repeated itself with Plex, a streaming app that lets you build your own Netflix, in a sense. Plex allows users to construct their own libraries, either collecting stuff from free streaming services, or creating their own "media servers" with whatever content you've got the files for. Then you can broadcast that to your T.V.

As spotted by 404media, however, an attempt to ramp up engagement has led to disaster. The "discover together" feature, introduced at the start of November, tries to capture the "Water Cooler Effect", i.e. recommending your favourite shows during office small-talk.

This allows you to add friends, which isn't a bad idea in itself. Being able to share your library of totally-legally-obtained anime with your buds is cool in theory. It's also meant to create an ecosystem of automatic recommendations based on what you and your friends watch, which hit its logical conclusion last week.

Plex added a new "week in review" feature to the whole discover together thing. In short, Plex will now share what you, and any user on one of your servers, has been watching. In a weekly round-up email. Sent to everyone else you know. And it's opt-out. Uh oh.

This has been going down about as smoothly as a glass of nails. The Plex forums' general discussion section has some hefty complaint threads. One user calls it the "enshitification of a good product." Another commenter remarks: "You don’t just turn something like that on without informing a user and making sure they have the opportunity to stop it before it starts."

The r/selfhosted subreddit, a general gathering place for people interested in services like Plex, was also lit on fire in a thread that hit over 1.7k upvotes: "On what planet would I ever want this information to be shared with friends on family on an OPT OUT basis?" Whether this is illegal or not is between Plex users and the privacy policy fine-print—but I can pretty confidently call it a bad idea.

On one hand, the wider fear over users having their porn history shared with their mates is only half-founded. As noted in this reply to one of the major threads, Plex only does this with stuff listed on the IMDb or TheMovieDB. On the other hand, that's still a lot of grey area. I searched "sexy" in IMDb and found plenty of titillating content that could bungle a friendship.  The social implications are an absolute nightmare, whether we're talking triple-X rated or M for Mature.

There have also been some fair observations that people in vulnerable situations might not want their viewing history shared with family members. For example, a closeted teen living in a house with intolerant parents watching LGBT-friendly shows like Heartstopper. While one response might be "well, why be on the same network" not everyone is technologically literate, and even the ones who are didn't see this decision blindsiding them.

Both the Plex subreddit and the selfhost blog now have full step-by-step instructions to getting out of this nightmare, but my heart goes out to anyone who had their secret love of catgirls or deep, deep obsession with storage wars outed to their peers without an explicit "yes", beyond the T&C page your average person shouldn't (but inevitably will) glaze over.

Not to mention, just looking at these instructions, it looks like you need to go to several different settings to reduce your chances of accidental oversharing to zero. Which both scans as a royal pain to me and would in theory cut you off from other functionalities of the service.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.