Naive About Netflix

I was caught off guard by the coverage of the Netflix tweet that 53 people had watched the movie A Christmas Prince every day for 18 days. Some headlines and social media users branded it “creepy” but for me, the only creepy thing was the shocking naivety of anyone who is actually surprised.

Privacy in the social, digital age is a big, important and complex topic that merits a lot of debate and even regulation. But for users to resort to uproar and outrage in response to a simple anonymised statistic is pretty pointless. Of course Netflix knows who is watching what, where, when and how often. That’s their business — supplying you with the programmes you’ve paid to watch. It would be impossible for them (not to mention commercially negligent of them) not to know.

But the response points to an underlying denial or ignorance of the faustian pact we’ve entered into in the last decade. Corporations know virtually everything about us, sometimes more than we know about ourselves. I would argue that far more invasive than mere stats about viewing was Netflix’s proud admission, a week earlier than the tweet, that they profile their users to such an extent as to personalise the tiles displayed on their home screens. And I don’t just mean the titles they show; they actually personalise the image used for the movie or show in an effort to make it more personally appealing than the generic promo image. So if you’ve a tendency to watch comedies, they’ll show you a Robin Williams still for Good Will Hunting, but if they think you’re more of a romance viewer, they’ll show you artwork containing Matt Damon and Minnie Driver.

For anyone considering the Netflix stats, it’s far more important to consider how companies use the data rather than their mere tracking of it — of course Netflix know what we watch, but their business essentially depends more on ensuring we remain happy to pay our subscription, so they try to learn what we like and then either make it, or show it to us. The data they gather about us can be used to subtly guide what we decide to watch. We may not even realise the power they have to determine what we watch or don’t watch.

All websites know when you visit, whether it’s your first visit or you’re a regular. Every click, scroll, tap or swipe is logged. Even your inaction is logged as “dwell time”. They can “sense” when you’re about to leave by the way you start to move your cursor to the top of the page, and then they can popup an offer to try to save you. We frequently input highly personal information into websites, and the proliferation of sensors and smart devices in our homes is feeding ever-more data to companies.

We routinely give up privacy for convenience or in a value exchange. And much of that is harmless when it’s in a controlled silo. So it’s not creepy that Netflix know I watched “The Circle” (which is a movie about really creepy tech) — it’s not my financial or my medical data and of little value to anyone but Netflix. In fact, you’re highly likely to freely tell people what you watched on Netflix last night anyway. It suits me if Netflix know what I like to watch so they can surface more of it for me. It’s a good deal for me, as I don’t miss a show I might otherwise not discover. And it’s a good deal for them, as I remain a happy customer and probably so happy that I’ll even promote the service to other people.

But what I’ll also promote to people is the importance of being aware of your data trail and being aware of how it could be used. I’m not unrealistic enough to think that people will suddenly start actually reading privacy policies on websites, but if the sensationalist headlines about creepy statistics are to do any actual good, let it be that people start to become aware of important digital privacy issues such as influence not merely statistics.

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I recommend this article if you’d like to understand the history of privacy:

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