The Netflix algorithm and the success of streaming


Photo via Pixabay

Dylan Mininger, Entertainment Editor

I still remember the first time I booted up Netflix Instant, looking at that pasty grey and red screen, my computer chugging and whirring, trying to comprehend and load up “Pulp Fiction.”

Before all of this, I had mostly gotten my movies through the mail, at the video store and through other online means that are slightly incriminating. My mind was blown: the movie started up and I sat there and marveled at the fact that I was watching a full-quality film, without having to wait for a download or having to walk to the video store and eventually forget to return the movie itself. I was a young man, but even then, as an avid film fanatic, I knew this was going to change the internet, the film industry and the way we ingest all types of media.

As the years went on, Netflix only grew stronger and stronger, moving its streaming service to various countries and various streaming platforms. It was starting to seem like this was all too good to be true. Yes, they had a tough time getting a large and eclectic collection of films and tv shows, but Netflix was growing larger and larger by the day.

Somewhere during this developmental stage, they developed the algorithm. Essentially, the algorithm is a complex system that arranges the large catalog of films they have on their service based on what will interest you, the viewer.

You have seen this every time you open the app: various oddly titled movie and TV show categories such as “LGBTQ Psychological Movies” and “Scary Cult Movies From the 1980s.” These categories are created by a group of human employees from Netflix to assist the algorithm. Alongside the strange and oddly specific categories, they take note of the movies you scroll by. They keep multiple thumbnail pictures for lots of the films, and they will change the picture to something that seems like more of the movie thumbnails you have clicked and watched in the past.

For example, they see that you’ve enjoyed John Travolta films. You may have not watched “Pulp Fiction,” but the algorithm will change the image thumbnail to have Travolta on it so it catches your interest faster. This is Netflix trying to convince you to watch things you didn’t want to watch previously, and it’s genius. This streaming service is actually shaping what you are watching while also building on its existing system through complex machine learning, based on people’s viewing habits and interests.

You may be curious about how else this information is used. It’s not only to contribute to the education of the algorithm itself, but also to create large pools of user-viewing information to create their own original movies and TV shows. Many original films and shows that Netflix creates and produces are based off of the popularity of current titles within Netflix’s category. It’s currently unknown how much of their original content comes from this kind of information gathering, but after sitting through a few Netflix original films and TV shows, it seems as if they are creating most of their content based off of these figures.

Not all of their content is generated this way. Netflix has spent large amounts of money producing and financing some seriously amazing film and TV endeavors. Currently, one of their most successful films, “Roma,” a new film from Alfonso Cuaron, is up for 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture. This is unprecedented and is paving the way for streaming services to getting wide theater releases as well as receiving Academy Awards.

I can’t say I’m in full support of these methods of streaming versus theatrical releases, but I can say that I have a serious interest in seeing how Netflix, Amazon and Hulu move from just catalogs and streaming to creating original content that includes serious contenders against the films made by big-budget studios.