How Netflix Knows Its Subscribers Better Than We Know Ourselves

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Netflix is undeniably the king of streaming TV and movies, and even its nearest competitors don't even come close. Although the streaming service is notoriously stingy with numbers like ratings and viewership, we do know that they've used a special algorithm over the years to get users coming back again and again. Originally, the algorithm was used to remind viewers of movies we'd added to our queues a few days previously to get us back in the mood for some binge-watching. Now, the algorithm has evidently evolved, and it points to Netflix knowing our tastes better than we do ourselves.

The evolved algorithm goes beyond simply reminding subscribers of what we added to our queues. Nowadays, Netflix uses the data of what individual users have watched to make related recommendations. The Netflix library of TV shows and movies is vast; left to our own devices, we may not always find something new that still appeals to our tastes. Netflix these days uses our viewing history to guide our viewing future. Former Google scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has explained why the algorithm needed to change, saying this:

What was the problem? Ask users what movies they plan to watch in a few days, and they will fill the queue with aspirational, highbrow films, such as black-and-white World War II documentaries or serious foreign films. A few days later, however, they will want to watch the same movies the usually want to watch: lowbrow comedies or romance films. People were consistently lying to themselves.

As somebody who has spent more time re-watching old episodes of The West Wing than any of the many documentaries in my queue, I'd say that Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is definitely onto something in his new book (via Business Insider). I've discovered shows I never would have watched before courtesy of Netflix's recommendations. Is it slightly creepy that Netflix seems to know me better than I know myself? Sure. But it's also pretty convenient. As long as Netflix's algorithm doesn't somehow gain awareness like A.L.I.E. on The 100 (which was recommended to me by Netflix), I think we'll reap the benefits of the system.

Netflix recently took a big step in improving its recommendation process when it changed the star ratings system into a thumbs up or thumbs down rating system. The simplified system makes it easier for Netflix to accurately determine what shows and movies will appeal to use based on what we've watched (and enjoyed) in the past. This was likely only one of many small changes in service of the larger goal of Netflix getting to know us even better than we know ourselves. We'll have to wait and see what other changes roll out in the coming months.

If you're still happy making your own Netflix choices, our Netflix premiere schedule will help you out. Stay tuned to CinemaBlend for the latest in TV news, and don't forget to check out our summer TV premiere schedule to discover all your viewing options now and in the coming weeks. Be sure to drop by our rundowns for cable/streaming and broadcast TV renewals and cancellations as well.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. CinemaBlend's resident expert and interviewer for One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and a variety of other primetime television. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).