Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
It should come as no surprise that Netflix employs highly fine-tuned recommendation algorithms, providing you with increasingly specific genres like "Movies Starring Fruits, Vegetables, and Fungi." Netflix estimates that up to 80% of the videos watched on its site come from its recommendation engine, according to a recent report by Mashable. That is, only one in five movies you watch on Netflix come from your organic desire alone.
But, how does Netflix know what you'll want to watch? First, it eschews typical biographic data like age and gender, as well as questions about genre preferences. Todd Yellin, VP of product innovation at Netflix, told Mashable that some people just aren't honest about what the want to watch, even to themselves. "Some people are really showing you their aspirational self," he says, "because some people just want to watch Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase for the 15th time."
Now the company focuses less on ratings and more on what you already watch, and when. It's begun tracking how people scroll through the recommendation page and which titles users ignore. If Netflix keeps recommending a given movie but you never click on it, it learns to stop suggesting it.
It starts to get a little chilling, however, when Yellin talks about the company's dream of total omniscience, taking the need for choice away from the user. "The perfect utopia that we joke about here...is why show thousands of titles? Why not just show one tremendous gorgeous image of one title because we've read your mind and know what it's going to be?" he tells Mashable.
Google's Eric Schmidt has made similar statements about the search engine's ability to "get right up to the creepy line" in terms of what it knows and can predict about its users. "We don't need you to type at all," Schmidt said in 2010. "We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."