From stars to thumbs: Netflix wants you to always watch the same things

Article firstly by published onIncipitmag.com, 12 April 2017(translated from Italian by the author).

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the more choice you have, the more difficult it is to choose. And this doesn’t only apply for important life decisions, but also and above all for the most irrelevant things such as entertainment: here we are, spending hours looking for the right book to read or the right film or to watch. Regarding this last sphere, then, the selection of a motion picture that is perfect to our night is an even more delicate procedure: the most nostalgic (and less younger) ones might remember all the time passed between Blockbuster’s shelves, while now we are all so busy browsing Netflix catalogue. Because, let’s admit it, it is a waste of precious time but it is also part of the fun.

And Netflix, the leader streaming website that’s changing our vision of films and TV series, of course knows it. In fact, to improve and speed up the viewers’ content-selection experience, the company has recently dropped its star-system rating in favour of a «thumbs-up-thumbs-down» one (as the most perceptive series addicted may have noticed). The reasons of this change? First of all, it’s an undoubtedly easier and more immediate method — The Verge indeed reports a 200% increase of logged ratings compared to the old system: I like it, thumb up, I don’ like it, thumb down. Simple as that. Anyway, what do stars mean? Am I rating the quality of the content or how much that content fits me?

It’s a much more familiar method, too. Partly adopted by Facebook, long used by YouTube (that’s why VP of product Todd Yellin’s declaration of innovation doesn’t sound quite right -«five stars feel very yesterday now» he said).

The main difference between the two systems is that the thumbs remove every nuance from the judgement, diminishing the rating to a mere yes-or-no vote and thus posing a hard dilemma in front of all the natural-born-insecure people. Yes, to attenuate this strict division a compatibility percentage has been introduced to show how much a product is near to other films or TV series previously liked by the user. But what does all this mean?

The logic behind the new method is simple: basically if you like a product, other similar products will be suggested to you; on the contrary, if you dislike something, such titles will never be proposed to you again. Meaning Netflix always shows you the same things. What happened to the discovery of new movies, to the extension of our horizons, to the curiosity that drives us into unexplored cinematographic territories? With this new rating system, for example, you won’t be able to find out whether a much acclaimed film actually suits your taste, you won’t be able to verify the famous hype. And, in general, we could say the thumbs system lacks the confrontation with others.

Considering that the American website is currently working on a global-scale analysis of its data instead of a local-based one, due to a raise of users who watch programs of foreign production, Netflix contradiction is extremely clear. Why reducing the display of new content we are not used to? Sure, everything is not adapt to everyone. But even those who usually latch on to traditional and mainstream film genres can sometime appreciate more peculiar and sophisticated productions, which might be a bit difficult and yet worthy to be proposed. Sadly, the biggest damage is felt by independent works, low-budgets films, experimental contents and, more broadly, those movies or shows that are hardly classifiable: those bittersweet indie rom-coms that would unlikely satisfy a palate set to a classical Hollywood type of picture.

Apparently, what prompted the transition to the thumbs system is the damaging impact of the old method to some shows, mostly Netflix own shows. As Vulture points out, a bunch of high-quality contents have received extremely low ratings, like the fantastic Amy Schumer’s The Leather Special, which only got 2.75 stars. In this case, the motive is quite surely the work of various trolls attacking the American comedian, nevertheless an average user who sees the rating will hardly choose to watch the program. It is also true, though, that with the new rating such content wouldn’t be displayed at all to the client unless he specifically liked other stand-up comedies (a not so popular genre, by the way).

In fact, Netflix affirms to be focused on the single user, but doing so it just deletes every dialogue with different realities, it takes away the passionate challenge created by our confrontation with something outside our comfort zones, it furthermore closes off the consumers by themselves and paralyses the development of their critical thought.

Like IndieWire says:

«By depriving viewers of the opportunity to broaden their range, Netflix denies an essential aspect of the maturation process for the critically engaged viewer».

Confrontation and challenge with the unusual are indeed wonderful experiences: have you ever watched a motion picture and, at the end, couldn’t tell if you just witnessed something genius or something crazy? And feel the need to discuss it with someone else who saw it to better understand your own opinion? This sensation of estrangement will difficultly happen to us if we keep watching the same titles. Not to mention that in a case such as the one above, putting a thumb up or down will either condemn you to always been haunted by products you don’t fully appreciate or deprive you to a whole genre you might eventually come to love. While stars, instead, offered a feedback to our own judgment and sharpened our criticism skills.

Besides, the famous streaming platform has not considered some other important factors.

Netflix HQ in Los Gatos (California), where the new rating system was presented on 17 March. Credits: Netflix Media Center.

For instance, those shows –mostly poor-quality shows- that we all watch just because they star that actor we like, because we can’t help but laugh at their silly gag, because they’re based upon that book we love or simply because we have grown fond of them and we want to see if those two actually end up together… Yes, we are talking about the so-called guilty pleasures. How to rate this exception to our otherwise good taste?

Another example eluding consideration is the existence of people who actually like a wide range of genres, including the most incompatible ones: a person might like high-suspense thriller but also Richard Curtis’ cheesy works (like yours truly).

Todd Yellin says Netflix’s aim is to suggest to the user only one single content, the perfect one. But it may not be possible, not until they will account to the fact that we are (still) human beings who change: one night we are in the mood for a happy film, next time we just want to cry, then we want to spend our evening with friends and watch the latest blockbuster or, maybe, we just want to see something different, extraordinary, that we have never seen before.

Personally, the greatest joys films and TV series brought me came together with the though «it wasn’t how I expected»: a comedy a bit sadder than I predicted, a drama a little wittier than usual, a surprising finale, a plot twist that makes me jump on my chair.

And above all, something that after the black screen with the credits would keep me there, suspended in its atmosphere, in that fictitious limbo, reflecting on what I just watched. All this cannot happen if I already know what I am about to face.

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