The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
2018 will be remembered for many things. And perhaps above all else, 2018 will be remembered as the year we reckoned with our data.
The early years of the 21st century seem like an innocent time in retrospect. As we transitioned from the teen innocence of MySpace to the truly interconnected world of Facebook and Twitter, a world of possibilities opened up before us. Now we can keep in touch with high-school crushes and middle-school gym teachers on Facebook before hopping on to Twitter to digitally scream at our favorite celebrity or mock our least favorite politician. And it’s all for free.
But, as our parents have told us repeatedly, nothing in life is free. We were warned, but it took a while to figure out. Our data is being sold: every single thing we’ve shared about ourselves is being divvied up and dissected for market research. And that data may even have helped put a president in the Oval Office.
Now we are starting to understand the value of data such as marital status, political preference, friendship habits, and even the time of day we’re most active online. But Facebook isn’t the only service we use online, and it isn’t the only company that collects our data. The recent Cambridge Analytica controversy got me thinking about what other sites have information about me, and what might do with it. Yelp knows everything I’ve eaten from a restaurant in the last 10 years. Amazon knows about all the times I’ve purchased toilet paper or deodorant. (Yes, you can buy those things on Amazon.) And Netflix knows everything I’ve watched through its service.
So what do my Netflix recommendations say about me? What could advertisers possibly glean from the information stored on my account, besides the fact I have excellent taste? I guess I’m a rare case; I watch TV professionally, both as a television critic and as a writers’ assistant for TV shows. So it would follow that I have a varied palate, one that is difficult to analyze. I imagine an Iowa housewife who refers to Shonda Rhimes’ programming as “my shows”, or a suburban motorcycle dad who lives vicariously through Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead would be an easier demographic nut to crack. At least that’s what I thought. But, looking at my recommendations, I have to admit Netflix has more or less figured me out.
The main recommendations I'm being offered are “Deadpan TV Shows,” “Quirky TV Shows Featuring a Strong Female Lead,” and “Witty TV Dramas.” On their surface, these phrases don’t really mean anything. Arrested Development and BoJack Horseman have a few similarities, sure, but what millennial hasn’t enjoyed these “deadpan” offerings at one point or another? This section also recommended the UK version of The Office, so you could just as easily call this selection “TV Shows You Watch in College or After 1 a.m..”
“Quirky Shows Featuring a Strong Female Lead” feels less unified. Jane the Virgin and The Good Place, the first shows featured in this category, are about as different as can be. And “Witty TV Dramas” is the least coherent of the bunch. Shows such as Love and She’s Gotta Have It appear alongside foreign shows that follow similar genre lines to Narcos and Breaking Bad. What the category should really be called is “This Dude Watches Pretty Much Anything That Isn’t NCIS.”
As a means of offering TV recommendations, it’s not a very effective set of suggestions. “You might like a psychedelic comedy, a hard-bitten drama, or a sweetly twee rom-com.” Thank you for your insights, Netflix. Yes, I do like stuff. But, as an analysis of who I am, these suggestions actually are pretty effective. The three categories show that Netflix understands the type of person I am, not what I like. No, BoJack Horseman, Narcos, and Jane the Virgin aren’t similar TV shows, but they share a similar audience. Or, more accurately, a specific group of people use these shows as a shorthand for their cultural identity.
These are shows people talk about on Twitter and not Facebook. These are shows you’re more likely to watch if you’ve been to college, even if you dropped out to work as a barista and throw everything into your improv team. These are shows that TV critics like myself would recommend you watch, making you feel more dialed into the zeitgeist. These are shows that make those year-end lists bloggers can’t resist publishing.
In a sense, Netflix recommendations work perfectly. They’re not really meant for you to make a quick choice. How many jokes have you seen about turning on your laptop only to spend an hour scrolling through your options, never landing on anything in particular? Netflix wants you to consider your options, to be made aware of everything you could come back to next time you’ve got a few spare hours. If you imagine these suggestions as a shorthand for your cultural identity, they make perfect sense.
When you combine the suggestions Netflix offers, you can probably guess a few things about me. Let’s talk in the broadest prestige TV fanboy stereotypes: He’s a city resident (guilty). He views himself as a liberal or progressive (true). He reads The New York Times and some blogs to broaden his media diet — in fact, the phrase “media diet” actually means something to him (yep).
You could even suggest that Netflix sees me as on one side of the new culture wars, defined by how often I go to independent coffee shops and how many different types of latte I have consumed in my lifetime. Conversely, you could guess how many guns I own (zero) or how many NASCAR races I’ve attended (also zero).
If all that is assumable from my Netflix recommendations, then aren’t these suggestions as valuable as the Facebook data used by Cambridge Analytica? From this information, could you guess that I supported Bernie Sanders in the U.S. primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election? If my suggestions on Netflix were Last Man Standing, Deadliest Catch, Mike & Molly, and Blue Bloods, what assumptions would you make about my cultural identity and my political affiliations?
I’m a little more pessimistic about the future of Netflix than most people. The company has notorious cash flow issues, which have compelled it to get into junk bonds to the tune of billions of dollars. Its subscription model has its limits, and it’s hard not to see its future as all that different from ESPN. If the question is, “What happens once everyone has a subscription?” the answer for ESPN was: “A massive crash.” This pessimism isn’t helped by the fact that whenever I go to rewatch a classic show on Netflix, it has since moved to Hulu, with Netflix’s algorithm instead suggesting I watch some terrible also-ran version of that show, often produced by the company to fill a gap in its library.
Whether Netflix or some other media giant such as Apple, Amazon, or YouTube becomes the dominant player in the digital space, this is the future. Maybe Netflix can figure out its cash-flow issues and remain the dominant player, or maybe some other company gets to take over the world. As it stands, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said the company’s main competition is sleep, and Netflix acts like it — forever prompting us to watch more and more for longer and longer. And if Netflix isn’t powerful enough to take on the world just yet, it is at least powerful enough to take on the world’s theater operators.
In addition to subscription fees, Netflix consumes our data. But, unlike a number of its online competitors, it’s unclear how Netflix can capitalize on it. We already know how Amazon can sell household products to someone who has binge-watched Parks and Recreation three times over. YouTube and Hulu can serve you ads, or ask you to pay so you don’t have to endure them. Facebook turns your life and your data into a feast for marketers and their ad buys. Netflix, as far as we know, is limited to making new shows to fit its subscribers’ preexisting interests, making it hard to see how it can generate billions of dollars in the long term.
It’s clear, though, that Netflix has amassed a mountain of valuable data. Not only does it know what you watch, but it knows how you watch it. And as you can see from our little thought experiment above, it probably knows what kind of person you are. Or at least it knows you well enough to position you in the culture and sell you a new TV show. If Netflix can figure out what it’s selling to you, or rather, some way to sell you, the company’s plans for world domination might yet come true.
Next up; here's why luxury watches cost so much money.