We know that Netflix personalizes its homepage to each user based on an algorithm, offering specific categories that the company thinks will encourage the user to start watching a show, movie or special. And as I scrolled through my Netflix homepage the other day, I noticed that the suggested categories had a running theme: They think I’d want to watch something “cynical” or “dark.”
Sometimes the categories are banal like “Suspenseful TV Shows.” Sometimes they’re quirky like “Teen TV for BFFs” or “Girls Night In.” Sometimes, as was the case the other day, they hit uncomfortably close to home.
A couple of years ago, people were up in arms when it was revealed that Facebook allows its members to figure out whether the social media company thinks they’re liberal, moderate or conservative. The Facebook algorithm could guess the political leaning based on member habits and served ads accordingly.
Similarly, Netflix uses an algorithm to track its own users. The Netflix algorithm guesses what subscribers want to see on an individualized basis, since all subscribers have surrendered intimate information about their likes and dislikes to this giant content company. Theoretically, any subscriber can figure out what Netflix thinks about their personality.
And Netflix thinks I’m cynical, which, I mean, isn’t wrong.
Netflix also personalizes the images it uses to advertise each piece of content on the homepage. As the company explained in a 2017 blog post, different subscribers will get different images based on their viewing habits. For example, someone who enjoys the romance genre could get served a picture featuring two characters looking at each other longingly, even if the movie has virtually nothing to do with a romantic plotline.
As you can see in the image above, Netflix gave me a “Cynical TV Shows” category. Within this category, the company recommended “Russian Doll,” a comedy I have to admit I do love a ton (I recently named it the best Netflix Original show of 2019 so far). But instead of simply showing a picture of the protagonist Nadia Vulvokov in a scene, Netflix gave me a custom image of Nadia wearing sunglasses in a variation on the skull and crossbones symbol. So cynical!
Next to that image, Netflix gave me a picture of Ricky Gervais looking real sad into the camera to promote his show “After Life.” And next to that, a show called “Hot Date” has no such “hot date” imagery and instead features a dark bar with someone acting like a mess on one side and a passed-out patron on the other.
What is Netflix trying to tell me?
I should make the caveat that the algorithm probably doesn’t work on my specific account, since I have to review so many television shows. Perhaps three weeks of watching “Black Mirror,” the bleak German show “Dark” and the sad Thom Yorke musical special “Anima” in succession for various articles led to Netflix getting a skewed impression of me.
Netflix gave me personalized categories for “Dark TV Thrillers” and “Dark TV Sci-Fi & Fantasy,” which I have to imagine has something to do with watching a sci-fi thriller literally called “Dark.”
But unless you also review television shows, then seeing what the algorithm thinks about you should be possible.
So what does this mean for you?
Hopefully, when you go to your homepage you find that Netflix thinks you’re smart and cool. Or maybe it just recommends “Friends” and “The Office” to you in a few different ways with categories like “Casual Viewing” or “Quirky Sitcoms” (although it may stop pushing those shows since Netflix will lose both of them soon).
If you find something particularly embarrassing, you can always just tell yourself that Netflix was simply testing to see if you’d like a new thing, rather than reflecting your already proven interests in that instance. The company constantly experiments with what will convince subscribers to stay on the service longer.
You can also mess with the algorithm. Consider checking out an article I did about the 10 weirdest things hiding on Netflix (such as color tests and a long film that follows a train traveling across Norway in real-time). Watch those a few times and who knows what Netflix will recommend.
And fingers crossed you don’t find out Netflix thinks you’re super-jaded. But if you do, give up your cynical tendencies for a moment and look on the bright side ... at least Netflix doesn’t think you want to watch “Teen TV for BFFs.”
Unless, of course, you’re two teen BFFs stacked atop each other in a trench coat to fool the all-seeing eye of Netflix into thinking that you’re just one user to jointly split the cost of a subscription. Then that’s not embarrassing at all.