Netflix is spending $7 billion on content next year–content that’s been shaped largely by Netflix’s own data on what people like to watch. And of course, Netflix will ensure you see the content you’re most interested in, because each person’s queue is shaped by the company’s habit-tracking algorithms.
But in fact, Netflix’s extreme personalization goes even deeper than that. According to a new post by Netflix itself, the company goes so far as to customize the artwork you see for films and shows based upon what you’ve clicked in the past. Yes, that means that you and I may see at least nine different permutations of a cover for Stranger Things, simply based upon our viewing habits.
Netflix deconstructs how this works on its blog. The company shows that someone who watches a lot of romantic films probably sees covers that show two people in love, while someone who prefers pure comedy might see a zany comedian on the covers of what they watch. So what happens when each person is presented a recommendation for Good Will Hunting? The romantic sees Matt Damon and Minnie Driver leaning in for a kiss. The humorist sees Robin Williams laughing. Such a decision sounds like it was designed by a human, but in fact, these efficiencies are built by machine learning algorithms.
In another example, an Uma Thurman fan is served the most iconic cover of Pulp Fiction, in which the actress is laying on her stomach, smoking a cigarette. But what about someone else who’s watched a lot of John Travolta movies? They’ll see an alternative cover featuring him instead. It’s entirely unrecognizable as the film Pulp Fiction, but it is most certainly Travolta.
“Of course, not all the scenarios for personalizing artwork are this clear and obvious. So we don’t enumerate such hand-derived rules but instead rely on the data to tell us what signals to use,” the company writes. “Overall, by personalizing artwork we help each title put its best foot forward for every member and thus improve our member experience.”
It’s an interesting phenomenon that probably isn’t so surprising to those of us who use the service, given that covers seem to change frequently in general. But a skeptic might point out that, while Netflix claims to be customizing the service to our tastes, it’s really just putting a different bow on the same gifts it’s offering to many of us already. For all Netflix’s claims of customization, the content–more frequently produced by Netflix itself–is of a limited pool often from Netflix’s own production company.
That means, at the end of the day, that yes–Netflix is spending billions to make us happy. But if we don’t like all the content it’s created? The company will let the algorithms package it, and perhaps repackage it again, until we at least think we might.