The Netflix Road to Homogenisation

Recently, I had a rare night away from home.  I stayed in a B&B.  Quite a nice B&B.  Snug sheets, tea and coffee-making facilities, and a widescreen TV, twice the size of the one I have at home.  It was the kind of B&B where it is possible to spend a perfectly pleasant evening tucked up inside watching a movie.

The TV had Netflix, which was a further advancement on my home.  I had never watched Netflix before, but I understood that there was meant to be a good choice of movies available, so I picked up the TV remote and started flicking through the options.

I was in the mood for something light-hearted, a recent comedy perhaps, preferably with Jennifer Aniston in it.  However, Netflix appeared to have an entirely different idea of what I should watch.  I was offered screen after screen of violent horror movies, then endless science fiction films; of either Jennifer Aniston or light-hearted comedy there was no sign whatsoever. 

It took me a while to twig what was going on: evidently, the person who had stayed in the room before me must have been an addict of horror and sci-fi, and the Netflix algorithm had adjusted its calculations accordingly, so that its recommendations were calibrated to his/her gory tastes.

With this insight in mind, I persevered with my own personal search and, after rejecting more axe murders and interplanetary exploration than seemed feasible, I finally came across Murder Mystery, a 2019 American comedy mystery film, starring Adam Sandler––oh, well, can’t have everything––and Jennifer Aniston––hurrah!

It got me thinking, though, about the person who had stayed in the room before me.  I would have been prepared to bet that he/she would never have discovered Murder Mystery on Netflix.  The Netflix algorithm would have suggested a horror/sci-fi movie, which would have suited his/her tastes long before Murder Mystery bobbed up on the selector.  And, while I am sure this will have pleased the previous occupant of my room, I am not so sure that this is a good thing.

The Netflix algorithm––and the Amazon one; and all the other choice-driven algorithms, which influence our lives––simply reinforce established patterns of behaviour; strengthen long-standing ideas and traditions.  Is this healthy?  Shouldn’t ideas be challenged; isn’t diversity more desirable than uniformity?  For the person who stayed in my B&B bedroom before me, Netflix created a comfortable horror-filled rut, when they could have offered an opportunity to explore previously-unimagined genres of entertainment possibilities.

And then I got to thinking about me and Jennifer Aniston.

Wasn’t I simply making my selection in the same way as the Netflix algorithm?  By choosing to watch Murder Mystery wasn’t I limiting my choice to what was comfortable and safe and familiar to me?

There was an alternative.  I could go back to the choices that Netflix had offered me in the first place: the violent horror and outlandish sci-fi, which had been the preference of the guest before me.  They were genres that I did not normally watch; it would take me out of my comfort zone; it would expand my horizons; make me look at the world in a different way; lead me away from the road of homogenisation; set me on a path of fresh possibilities.

Or I could watch Jennifer Aniston on widescreen.

© Simon Turner-Tree

Simon Turner-Tree knows what he likes.

Simon’s books include:
Watching Life Pass Me By
This Pedestrian Life

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