I Am a Product of My Netflix Algorithm

Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

Four years ago I made one of the most fateful decisions of my adult life, and I didn’t even know it was happening at the time. I just thought I found a good way to kill a few hours binge watching a new show.

The show, called City Hunter, had shown up in my recommended list a few weeks before and the description sounded interesting enough to catch my attention. And for the record, I loved the show. It was fast-paced, had a lot of fun action and romance, and managed to wrap-up the whole storyline (a revenge tale with a healthy dose of underdog vigilantism) in 20 episodes.

It was also entirely in Korean.

City Hunter was my first experience with K-dramas, though I was dimly aware that they existed. While watching the show, I fell in love with the language. I had studied French since middle school and had a long time interest in linguistics, but there was something about Korean that made me connect with it more viscerally than any other language I’d encountered.

By the time I finished the show, I’d decided to look into learning more about the language to round out the approximately three phrases I’d managed to pick up over the course of the episodes. Luckily for me, it turns out that Korean has one of the easiest writing systems on the planet and pretty much anyone can learn it within a week, and most could pick it up with less than a day of study.

With that foundation, I turned to websites like Talk to Me in Korean to get free lessons on vocabulary and grammar. By devoting time to studying every day, and watching plenty more K dramas, I eventually reached a level that I can comfortably understand everyday spoken conversations and have a decent grasp of most news articles.

There are numerous articles about the growth of Korean culture and entertainment across the world and the phenomenon is certainly worth a great deal of study. However, what’s of interest to me in this article is how a simple algorithm has had such a profound effect on my life.

Without Netflix, I doubt I ever would have encountered much in the way of Korean culture. I didn’t have any friends interested in K-pop or K-dramas, and the city I live in doesn’t even have any Korean restaurants. So while traditionally languages and cultures have been spread through contact between peoples, the digital age has allowed it to happen through individuals.

As the use of algorithms to meet tailored interests expands, it’s likely that more and more of our ideas and personality will be shaped by what those algorithms expose us to. My previous watching history made me more likely to enjoy K-dramas, which is what led them to be recommended to me, but watching K-dramas has also shaped how I look at American and British television programs, changing my interests in some ways.

Of course, while every individual still has a choice in whether or not they follow an algorithm’s recommendation, it’s clear that they’re getting better and better and knowing what we like when it comes to movies, music, or even dating. Personal taste in the 21st century is less an amalgamation of your culture’s and your friends’ interests and more of a divine Plinko game where small decisions set you on a path to radically different ends. Each peg comes with a helpful 95% match tag and pushes you further in new directions.

Culture is the biggest shaper of human behavior and technology has rapidly become one of the biggest shapers of culture. So while I’m very thankful to Netflix and City Hunter for the world it opened to me, we also need to recognize the unseen ways our thoughts and preferences are influenced by an uncritical force with one goal in mind: Give the people what they want.