Netflix in Real Life

Curator's Note

In the Buzzfeed clip, “Netflix in Real Life,” a young man named Bobby enters a video store and is immediately confronted by a red-polo-shirted clerk named Netflix, who welcomes Bobby back and asks if he wants to continue watching Love Actually (2003). “Is Michelle still using my account?” Bobby asks incredulously. He demurs: “No, I’m just trying to wind down, like an Action or a Comedy.” The clerk follows him around the shop, awkwardly thrusting a DVD cover for Die Hard (1988), which Bobby has already watched, and then robotically suggesting that, having liked Titanic (1997), Bobby would love a title called Fancy Boat Sick. The rest of the video revolves around the revelation that all the films that do interest Bobby are not actually available to watch. 


The parody’s bottom line? If the Netflix were a video shop and its recommender system were the tips from a store clerk, both would be out of business, so poorly do they compare. 


In a no doubt arch, exaggerated and simplified way, “Netflix in Real Life” illustrates the way that many real users experience VOD recommender systems. Indeed, its humour relies on recognizing a less-than-satisfactory consumer experience and the irony that a now outmoded form of film access, video shops, possessed a form of suggestion (word of mouth) that seems more reliable and trustworthy. 


My Journal of Cinema and Media Studies article, “The Internet Suggests: Film, Recommender Systems, and Cultural Mediation,” provided an initial quantitative analysis of two specially commissioned nationally representative US and UK surveys and my forthcoming book on this subject illustrates and enriches these results with a qualitative analysis of dozens of user interviews. Taken together, the research indicates that most audiences rate VOD recommender systems as relatively ineffective and maintain limited credibility in them – all of this despite a largely unchallenged consensus, promoted by both proponents and critics of the tools, that VOD recommender systems are effective, powerful, unprecedented, and widely used.

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