How companies advertise to you says a lot about how they see you.
It was a couple of years ago now that I realized Netflix saw me as a real man’s man. Why else would the company try capturing my attention with a harpoon of dude-bros?
"Netflix, do you happen to have any original series about that dudelife?" pic.twitter.com/YhDWrnOzPh
— Joe Berkowitz (@JoeBerkowitz) April 17, 2016
My viewing history decreed these shows the ones I’d be most interested in, and furthermore, that they should be displayed thusly–with nary a woman in sight. (God forbid I be reminded of my ex or, like, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and close out the tab in a blind rage.) This centering of testosterone went beyond recommending new shows; it crept into the display art for shows I’d already seen. Perhaps it was my predilection for Scorsese movies that led to the erasure of Tina Fey.
It's almost quaint that Netflix thinks 30 Rock is an Alec Baldwin vehicle. pic.twitter.com/xwomk8zvoy
— Joe Berkowitz (@JoeBerkowitz) May 20, 2016
As one writer pointed out on Twitter this week, though, the personalization of artwork in Netflix’s title recommendations does not merely break down along gender lines. Netflix’s art algorithm may also have a racial component, too.
Stacia L. Brown tweeted on Thursday about the poster art Netflix customized on her behalf for the film, Like Father. On her account, caucasian costars Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammar are nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by a pair of POC side-characters who barely figure into the movie at all.
Other Black @netflix users: does your queue do this? Generate posters with the Black cast members on them to try to compel you to watch? This film stars Kristen Bell/Kelsey Grammer and these actors had maaaaybe a 10 cumulative minutes of screen time. 20 lines between them, tops. pic.twitter.com/Sj7rD8wfOS
— stacia l. brown (@slb79) October 18, 2018
Brown put the question out to her 11,500 followers to see whether they’d had similar experiences. Several of them wrote back confirming her suspicion.
Further exploration revealed even more instances of relatively marginal black characters in movies and shows sharing the spotlight in order to catch her discerning eye.
None of those are quite as weird as the Like Father one, btw.
— stacia l. brown (@slb79) October 18, 2018
What was going on here?
Netflix would be the first to admit it does indeed personalize artwork based on user histories. In fact, the company put out an extensive Medium post last December describing its techniques.
“This is yet another way Netflix differs from traditional media offerings: We don’t have one product but over 100 million different products with one for each of our members with personalized recommendations and personalized visuals,” the writer crows at one point. (Emphasis theirs.)
However, the post says nothing about whether race is a determinant factor. The criteria it does offer makes a lot of sense. If your usual fare is straight-up comedy, the artwork for Good Will Hunting will feature legendary funnyman Robin Williams smiling slyly. If your viewing habits skew more toward hopeless romanticism, the same film entices you with Matt Damon and Minnie Driver mid-makeout.
The post goes on to explain in very dry language why and how Netflix personalizes its art, and it all sounds perfectly reasonable. Manipulative, sure, but not in an offensive or misleading way. Good Will Hunting does in fact costar Robin Williams, even though it’s not him at his most hilarious, exactly. Matt Damon and Minnie Driver do share a courtship in the movie, even if it’s a tad overwrought at times. Perhaps fans of movies about South Boston see Ben Affleck in a tracksuit, and fans of inexplicableness get an image of the scene where Casey Affleck jacks off into a baseball glove in his friend’s mom’s room. (Seriously, how did that scene not get edited out? It’s inexplicable.)
All of those options are truth in advertising, even if they’re not 1000% accurate.
What the company did on Brown’s account with Like Father, though, seems like a more malevolent manipulation. Not only does it reduce her entertainment preferences–and by extension, part of her personality–down to “black-people movies” the way it did “dude movies” for me, but it also manufactures the appearance of greater diversity than actually exists. If advertising reveals what companies think of you, Netflix seems to think its users don’t mind being cynically misled based on identity. The more important question is what this all says about Netflix.
UPDATED: Below is a statement from Netflix, addressing personalized title art.
“We don’t ask members for their race, gender or ethnicity so we cannot use this information to personalize their individual Netflix experience. The only information we use is a member’s viewing history. In terms of thumbnails, these do differ and regularly change. This is to ensure that the images we show people are useful in deciding which shows to watch.”