Netflix’s algorithms are more limiting than they are liberating

Ive wasted hundreds of hours browsing Netflixno, not watching, but browsingscavenging through it, like a hungry animal on the prowl, hunting for something worthy of my attention and dedication. My eyes graze over the surface of that familiar plane of posters, seeing each storyline trapped within its own tiny thumbnail, jutting out from the page at the touch of my cursor, they beg: Watch me! Choose me! But, in the age of the internet, choice is more a hindrance than a help, and among the dozens of possible options, nothing stands out. Is this why I pay subscription fees every monthto spend more time in search of something to watch than watching the thing itself?

Dont get me wrong, Netflix is filled to the brim with great content, and whether its critically-acclaimed, comedic, or simply compelling, just about anyone can find something worth streaming on the website. Still, most nights, I browse in vain, faced with the problem of deciding, time and time again, what should I watch?

On Netflix, familiarity masquerades as something new, and the streaming service presents us with a whole range of choices that, upon closer inspection, are revealed to be a lot more of the same old thing.

At a glance, the choices seem infinite: hilarious chronicles of yuppie New Yorkers living in their so-shabby-its-chic apartments, Oscar-winning biopics about inspirational figures from the 20th century, edgy sci-fi flicks with premises that are as far-fetched as they are fascinating. Do these suggestions sound familiar? Its probably because they are. Netflix uses a complex system of algorithms to tailor selections to each users particular intereststhat is, it shows us more of what we like, and less of what we dont. Its the Silicon Valley companys updated version of a classic boutique sales strategy, and, more often than not, it works like a charm.

Are you a fan of Mad Men? Well then, probably, youll love House of Cards, Suits and Downton Abbey too! Or maybe The Breakfast Club is more your thing, so check out Clueless, Skins and How I Met Your Mother! Let yourself fall down the rabbit hole of craveable content, with every new suggestion seeming to offer the same delights as what you love already. On Netflix, familiarity masquerades as something new, and the streaming service presents us with a whole range of choices that, upon closer inspection, are revealed to be a lot more of the same old thing.


Lately, theres been a lot of chatter online about the brilliance and innovation of Netflixs approach to media. As it turns out, Netflix content is categorized within one (or more) of its 76,897 hidden subgenres, and an intricate system of algorithms determines what a user wants to watch, even when they might not be too sure themselves. According to Netflix officials, an estimated 75 percent of viewing activity is driven by recommendations, a staggering number that demonstrates the companys ability to keep us watching, autoplaying our way deep into the abyss of on-demand content. Its niche marketing at its finest, so successful because it recommends content that appeals to a users unique passions and peculiaritiesenticing them to sit back, relax, and set their sights on the subgenres with the most allure.

For the most part, this is a good thing. Netflix encourages its viewers to watch more of what they love, inviting them to indulge in their personal obsessions for hours on endall while they navigate the sites landscape of content with either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, honing-in on their sense of selves in the process. Nowadays, a persons viewing habits are a reflection of their unique interests and investments, and a watchlist might very well have more to say about someones character than any resum or twitter bio ever could.

Watching Netflix has become a private and isolated experience of self-indulgence, and, despite the prevalence of Netflix and Chill jokes circling the web, for most of us, its an entirely solitary endeavour. Netflix creates a niche to perfectly accommodate each persons unique needs, and once settled there, it seems unfathomable for any of us to step outside our pre-set comfort zones. Even if we dont admit it, most of us are reluctant to experiment with a show or film whose unique equation of actors, writers and story dont add up to equal the predetermined outcome of, well, me.

This is the problem at the heart of niche viewershipone that almost no one is talking about. The word niche originates from the Latin word for nest, and Ill be the first to confess that Ive become far too passive and complaisant in the one that Netflix has fashioned for me.


When it comes to decision-making, the algorithmically-driven platform suppresses my choices more than it supports them, distancing me from content that doesnt match-up with my existing preferences. Often, Im desperate to escape the rows and rows of selections that the system assigns to me, as if Netflix were the nagging coworker who insists on me watching a show that, frankly, is of no interest.

If only there were a way to reorient oneself towards the platforms offerings, washing-away the expectation of fulfilling personal desires, and diving deep into those pools of content in search of new experiences instead. Unfortunately, in the lingo of Netflixs niche cultures, the word new so rarely describes innovation or experimentation, instead, its just more similarity in the form of something you havent seen before. No wonder it seems like theres nothing to watch!

Unfortunately, in the lingo of Netflixs niche cultures, the word new so rarely describes innovation or experimentation, instead, its just more similarity in the form of something you havent seen before.

The problem is that within the apparent plentitude of Netflixs offerings, there is actually a real povertyone that is the direct consequence of an interface that tells you what to watch, rather than the other way around. As Netflix users, were trapped by an algorithm of imprisonment, held captive within a system that predetermines what is worth watching and what isnt. If film and television have the unique ability to break down the boundaries that exist between people, then Netflixs niche categories work to solidify the divides between themmaking it more and more difficult for viewers to see the world through the eyes of the other.

Let me urge you to ditch your existing loyalties and become more promiscuous with your viewing habits, trespassing the borders of Netflixs preset recommendations to seek out content from across the spectrum. After all, culture shouldnt be thought of as a mirror, but as a window insteadone that looks bravely into unfamiliar worlds of difference and diversity. That is, so long as you have the will to open it up.

Quinn O’Gallagher studies pop culture and media at McGill University in Montreal. He writes about the collision between personal experiences and mass communications, unpacking the politics of our everyday digital lives. Follow him on Twitter @quinnogallagher.

A version of this storyoriginally appearedon Medium and has been reprinted with permission.

Image viaBrian Cantoni/ Flickr (CC 2.0)

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