Exiled in the Algorithm

Netflix knows you. It knows what you’re watching, when you’re watching, and how much. It knows what you want and what you don’t want.

You want pretty much exactly what User No. 12046, residing in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. wants, or No. 1685039 in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, and thousands of others.

I know less than Netflix. I know that ‘Netflix is the definitive media company of the 21st Century’, that as of January 2018 the company had 117.58 million paying subscribers in 190 countries; that you are familiar with what Netflix is, and probably use it.

My guess, however, is that you know very little or nothing about it.

Founded by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph in Scotts Valley, California, in 1997, Netflix is the entertainment company that has changed not only the way in which television and film are distributed, but also the way in which they are watched, discussed and, since 2012, written and produced. The gravity of this has not nearly been recognised. This is because Netflix, aiming to accumulate as many different iterations of specific video streaming content to appeal to as many individuals as possible – thereby acquiring and retaining more monthly subscribers – has become, in the words of television critic James Poniewozik, ‘breathtakingly broad and microscopically specific’. It operates using complex algorithms constructed through both human and artificial intelligence, and works, essentially, via a forensic collation of and reaction to data. Netflix’s extensive, skeletal system is never seen, or at least, rarely looked at by the viewer. After all, when most viewers are using Netflix, they are probably not thinking critically, least of all about Netflix itself – it is a streaming media, video-on-demand, entertainment provider.

As David Foster Wallace highlights in his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’ (1993), television is one thing a person can look at that doesn’t look back: ‘TV looks to be an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself … We can see Them; They can’t see Us’. Wallace was writing in 1993, however – pre-internet, pre-social media, and pre-Netflix. In 2018, viewers – individuals – are becoming increasingly more aware of the fact that now, media companies not only ‘watch back’, but their business models are centred on doing so: ‘We can see Them; They can see Us’. And the impending realisation is that in fact, ‘They can see Us; We can’t see Them’.

The sense of constancy Netflix now exudes as a diurnal staple in the lives of millions directly contrasts with its mercurial rise to such a position. What Randolph and Hastings founded in 1997 is very far from Netflix as it is known today. Netflix started as a DVD-by-mail, disc-rental company, jumping on the bandwagon of two recent innovations: the then-three-year-old e-commerce company Amazon and the recent release of DVD players for sale in the US on March 31st 1997. Netflix took customers’ orders for DVDs and delivered them straight to their homes, with no risk of late fees or fines.

Netflix’s next defining play came in 2005. Data speeds and bandwidth costs had improved sufficiently to permit Netflix executives to begin developing a ‘Netflix box’, which could download movies from the internet overnight. But after discovering YouTube, the then-new video-sharing website that was demonstrating the immediate popularity of streaming services, Netflix immediately scrapped the ‘box’ and switched to this streaming concept. Comparably, the universal, social significance of algorithms and artificial intelligence has only been discussed seriously and widely in recent years, but as early as October 2006, Netflix was offering a $1,000,000 prize to the first developer of a video- recommendation algorithm that could beat its existing system. Similarly, when Netflix’s proposal to abandon its individual profile feature in 2008 was met with an outcry from subscribers, the decision was renounced 11 days later. Netflix is one of the major influencers of the 21st Century, and it has achieved this status through its acerbic reception of the influence of others.

The apocryphal origin story of Netflix helps us to understand how and why the company has evolved. Allegedly, it was after having accrued a $40 late fee for an overdue videotape of Apollo 13 that Reed Hastings came up with an idea to get rid of late fees altogether. To remove any form of barrier between the individual and entertainment, as far as contemporary technology would allow. To jettison the vestigial sense of interpersonal law or obligation when it comes to the realm of modern domesticated entertainment. No longer does one have to go to a Blockbuster to browse and rent a film, nor does one have to look after and return it by any particular time for the convenience of future users. Netflix’s history is defined by a disruption of boundaries between consumer and product in its specific field, whilst imposing boundaries between individuals – each viewer remains in their particular, isolated ‘profile’. There is a reason why Netflix has been thought to produce and promote solipsism: it was, and is, designed to.

Now, in 2018, Netflix has two main selling points. Firstly, the company provides its consumers with non-linear media – an ostensibly inexhaustible library of films and TV shows unrestricted by the specific branding limitations that befall broadcast television networks and their linear media designed to appeal to large demographics. Unlike broadcast television, this content may be accessed and streamed as and when the viewer desires. The abolition of a set structure for television, the breakdown in boundaries between individual items of content – between TV shows, between series, between episodes – has led to a proliferation of similar microcosmic examples of the same: the ‘Skip Recap’, ‘Skip Intro’, the ever-decreasing 15-second…10-second… 5-second countdown before ‘Play Next Episode’, then the ‘Watch Trailer for—’ that comes after finishing a programme.

Secondly, Netflix offers its viewers personalised recommendations of TV shows or films based on a subscriber profiling system. Using cutting-edge algorithms, the online platform records and analyses what a viewer watches, and on that basis provides a list of suggestions for what that individual might watch next. In an article for The Atlantic, ‘How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood’, Alexis Madrigal identifies 76,897 micro-genres created by the video service, ranging from ‘Norwegian Wilderness-Survival Tearjerkers’ to ‘Emotional Fight-the-System Documentaries’. Madrigal found that Todd Yellin, Netflix’s VP of Product Innovation, conceived of a system to meticulously breakdown, analyse and ‘tag’ individual features of every movie and TV show imaginable. Guided by a 36-page instructive document, large teams of people were specially trained to watch films and tag them with all kinds of metadata, ranging from temporal and geographic settings (‘from the 1970s’, ‘set in Europe’), to ratings of the ‘moral status of characters’, ‘sexually suggestive content, goriness, romance levels, and even narrative elements like plot conclusiveness’, noting the occupations and situations of protagonists – the list, of course, goes on. So it would seem that Netflix, through its business strategy of derivation, acquires and now produces more of what it has recognised various specific micro audiences as wanting to watch. The recent study The Age of Netflix (2017), edited by Cory Barker and Myc Wiatrowski, defines this as ‘narrowcasting’. Unwittingly, the viewer inhabits Netflix’s system to ‘Fight-the-System’, and nothing it seems, is sacred.

It is one thing to acknowledge what Netflix does for the consumer, but another to realise its impact on people, contemporary culture and society, the art it produces, and the individual. Netflix is an anti-social force in two ways. Its non-linear streaming media and personalised profiles have established a dominant preference and precedent for watching TV alone. Where previously families or households might gather round the television to watch something together (broadcast programming coheres with this because it depends financially on appealing to the largest audience possible), with Netflix individuals become habitually used to their specific, ‘singular’ preferences – that which is ‘narrowcast’ and suggested to them and only them.

But more than this, ‘[w]atching TV can become malignantly addictive’, writes Wallace in 1993, wary of slipping into what he described as ‘anti-TV paranoia’. In 2018, ‘binge-watching’ is not only ubiquitous and commonplace as a term, but also as a pastime, and has been scientifically analysed and explained. For example, Dr Renee Carr in an NBC article states: ‘When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge watching, your brain produces dopamine’, giving us ‘a natural internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity’.

And the more time a person spends watching television, the more that person begins to see the fictional 2D characters and their stories as his or her own, a smooth-surfaced replacement for his or her markedly less shiny 3D realities. Gayani DeSilva explains the scientific aspect of this: ‘Our brains code all experiences, be it watched on TV, experienced live, read in a book or imagined, as “real” memories … So when watching a TV program, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same as when experiencing a live event. We get drawn into storylines, become attached to characters and truly care about outcomes of conflicts’.

Netflix’s business strategy of derivation – finding out what you like to watch and proliferating instances of it in its online library – not only has individual and communal social impact, but has also drastically influenced the production of content. Madrigal may write that ‘The data can’t tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making’, but in fact by collecting television shows and films into categories in the way that he does, escalating what Wallace calls television’s ‘syncretic diversity’, Netflix enables just that. This is seen not only in ‘Netflix Originals’ programmes and films – premiered on, enabled and produced by Netflix – but also in the content of broadcast media. Taking the openings of television shows that may (and have) been collected under the heading ‘Prestige TV Drama’, which may otherwise be described as ‘Hard-Hitting’ or ‘Serious’ and ‘Acclaimed’ TV drama, in the tradition of Mad Men (2007-2015), Breaking Bad (2008-2013) or House of Cards (2013-), this becomes strikingly clear. Season 1 Episode 1 of Narcos (2015), Bloodline (2015), Manhunt: Unabomber (2017), Ozark (2017) each begins with a voice over:

Narcos: ‘Nowadays, the US government can listen to anything you say. They know where you are, they know who you’re talking to, and trust me, they know who you’re fucking. You turn on a cell phone or a computer, and you’re doomed. But in Colombia in 1989, it wasn’t that easy.’

Bloodline: ‘Sometimes you know something’s coming. You feel it in the air. In your gut. You don’t sleep at night. The voice in your head’s telling you that something is gonna go terribly wrong. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it. That’s how I felt when my brother came home.’

Manhunt: Unabomber: ‘I want you to think about the mail for a minute. Stop taking it for granted like some complacent, sleepwalking sheep and really think about it. I promise you, you will find the US mail a worthy object of your contemplation. A piece of paper can cross a continent like we’re passing notes in class. I can send you cookies from the opposite side of the world, and all I have to do is write your name on the box, put some stamps on it, and drop it in. And you see, it only works because every single person along the chain acts like a mindless automaton.’

Ozark: ‘Wampum. Dough. Sugar. Clams. Loot. Bills. Bones. Bread. Bucks. Money. That which separates the haves from the have-nots. But what is money? It’s everything if you don’t have it, right? Half of all American adults have more credit card debt than savings. 25% have no savings at all. And only 15% of the population is on track to fund even one year of retirement. Suggesting what? The middle class is evaporation? Or the American Dream is dead? You wouldn’t be sitting there listening to me if the latter were true.’

Three of these are Netflix Originals, one is not, and from the above script extracts, it’s difficult to distinguish between them. A clear template – or perhaps monotony – arises, which has ‘inspired’ the introduction to this essay. An authoritative, American and disembodied baritone stretches through the 2D television, laptop, phone screen to the identifying ears of the isolated viewer, and presents that individual with the concern that applies to them, to every American perhaps, or to anyone, separately, and collectively. It explicitly addresses that which implicitly affects the individual always, the system in which people are so immersed that they forget to think about it. In Narcos, it’s the overreaching, omnipresent and ever-listening ‘US government’; in Bloodline, it’s the human instinct of dread, and the institution of family; in Manhunt: Unabomber, the ‘US mail’; in Ozark, ‘Money’. The voice knows the viewer, clearly, or such is the impression effected by the proliferation of second-person pronouns. These have the convenient capability of addressing the singular and the plural, the individual and the collective. What’s more, the first person pronouns – used more sparingly, but thus more definitively – construct an intimate, dyadic relationship of trust, information and identification between the voice and the viewer. This is how Prestige TV Dramas take in their mass audiences.

Further interesting, and less obvious, is the diffusion of those enticing ‘Prestige TV’ techniques into other, ostensibly very different genres. For example, the teen drama television series Riverdale (2017-), produced by Warner Bros. Television and CBS Television Studies for The CW Television Network, now on Netflix, utilises the piercing voice over of the Prestige Drama to frame its dark take on a high-school sitcom/drama: ‘Our story is about a town, a small town and the people who live in the town … The name of our town is Riverdale, and our story begins, I guess, with what the Blossom twins did this summer.’ The programme, aimed at a younger demographic, softens the invasive voice through repeating the first person plural, collective pronoun ‘our’, which may or may not pertain to the viewer, rather than the incisive ‘you’. This is perhaps telling as the show progresses, and the viewer is caught between the narrative that the story is very much belonging to the teens of Riverdale High, and the instinct that the story is intimately shared between the viewer and one ‘Jughead Jones’, or Cole Sprouse. Removing this technique from the pure ‘Prestige TV Drama’ stage, and rereading it in this context, reveals one of the ways in which television programmes in the age of Netflix encourage binge-watching. The 2D fiction begins to replace your life because the story it tells is originally given and introduced to you as ‘yours’.

Comparably, Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-) and NBC’s The Good Place (2016-) also demonstrate an attempt to elevate the sitcom and its ironies to binge-worthy level through an introduction of sincerity and intense conviction. Both programmes centre on protagonists who fit a significant number of the criteria listed in Vulture writer Logan Hill’s ‘13 Rules for Creating a Prestige TV Drama’:

Rule 1: Start with an anti-hero

  1. Make him middle-aged

The kidnapped-for-15-years Kimmy Schmidt and deceased saleswoman from Arizona, Eleanor Shellstrop, are both firmly into adulthood.

  1. Give him a traumatic memory
    Kimmy’s kidnapping in ‘the bunker’ or life on earth before ‘The Good Place’ for Eleanor.
  2. Make him great at his job
  3. Make his business a microcosm of the American Dream

Unlike the Prestige TV Drama, neither Kimmy Schmidt nor The Good Place is centred on the protagonist’s occupations, but they are centred on these characters finding their way in new social environments with which they are utterly unfamiliar, and yet, nonetheless, inadvertently adept at navigating, be it the ‘outside world’ of New York or the unexplored ‘Good Place’.

  1. Give him a secret
    Again, Kimmy’s secret is her kidnapping, a past she wants to keep hidden in order to move away from it, and Eleanor’s is her former life, and belief that she is in ‘the wrong place’.
  2. Make him a woman

Both shows also centre themselves implicitly – as suggested above – and explicitly on philosophical and ethical problems, with the third season of Kimmy Schmidt and the prominent thread throughout The Good Place giving crash courses in philosophy. (Both have episodes entitled ‘The Trolley Problem’.) These are not the only ‘high-culture’ references. Literary allusions and quotations are as rife in these sitcoms as they are as inspiration for the plot developments of contemporary Prestige-esque TV shows. (Consider NBC’s Designated Survivor (2016-) in which, following the bombing of the US capitol, the least qualified member of the former president’s cabinet, who has just been fired, becomes head of state. Compare it to Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V, or its plots of internal treachery and betrayal and Macbeth). These culture- or knowledge-drops seem to offer the ‘learned’ viewer opportunities for self- gratification as they get the ‘inexplicit’ reference.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Good Place also deploy the features of nostalgia and disrupted temporality with which Prestige Dramas are teeming. The protagonists experience extended flashbacks, and segments from their pasts are used to explain or elucidate events happening in the present, enabling writers and producers to alternate between different aesthetic ‘worlds’, juxtaposing the vivacity of the modern, colourful present and the languid, doomed past. Grandinetti in The Age of Netflix recognises this trope of disrupted temporality and suggests: ‘It is possible that this temporal displacement is a result of postmodern schizophrenia’, in which ‘there is no sense of the “past” or “future” but rather an instantaneous and vacuous sense of the “present”’. This ‘vacuous present’ comes as a result of the overwhelming availability of information and choice in an individual’s free time’. In The Good Place, a resident can access all of their memories from Earth and watch them on TV.

The effect that Netflix is having on the media consumed by hundreds of millions of people should not be underestimated. Netflix, and its competitors in production and distribution, have located the viewer’s televisual home. It thinks seriously about not just what people want to watch, but what people want, what people think, and what people feel they ought to want and think – and proliferates it. ‘For television’s whole raison is reflecting what people want to see,’ writes Foster Wallace: ‘It’s a mirror.’ Netflix has taken this to the next level: it is Ben Jonson’s Epicure Mammon’s house of ‘glasses / Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse / And multiply the figures’ as he walks ‘Naked’ between his ‘succubae’. Netflix allows the individual self-indulgently to think only what they are comfortable thinking, and moreover, to think that this is all they need to or should know. The platform relentlessly repatriates – or exiles – each of its viewers into his/her familiar televisual home as identified by its algorithm, and inculcates certain patterns of thought into the mind of that viewer such that, for example, the character development mapped in any show or film suggested is no ‘development’ at all.

Yet, this is not the only way in which Netflix may be viewed. To leave such a reading of the media company and its impact would be – hypocritically – to ingrain further the doctrine that television – and the entertainment industry generally – is a solely negative, mind-numbing force since its invention, and to suggest that it can be nothing else. In April 2018, The Independent published Ximena Larkin’s ‘How Netflix’s increasing use of foreign language content is helping to fight xenophobia’. Whilst the arguments for and the visible evidence of Netflix’s promotion of solipsism are undeniable, Larkin is right to suggest that the platform just as covertly, but no less significantly, provides predominantly English-speaking, Western viewers with foreign language content that subtly redresses ego- and Anglo-centricity. Furthermore, foreign language content, which requires those who are unfamiliar with the language to read subtitles, ensures that people are paying attention to the narrative of the film or programme, and are not, for example, also on their phones. Netflix also enables writers and producers to create individual and original content that would not be economically viable without the pre-formed specific micro-audiences Netflix has identified. A film that does well on Netflix, for its particular, known Netflix audience, may have achieved little success via the less-streamlined distributors of cinemas or broadcast television. An example of this is The Square (2013), an Egyptian-American documentary film by Jehane Noujaim, which depicts the ongoing Egyptian Crisis until 2013, starting with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 at Tahrir Square.

It is crucial that Netflix and its data collection are viewed critically at a time when Facebook, its algorithms, and Cambridge Analytica are finally being exposed. Netflix might not encourage its viewers to buy certain things or vote in certain ways using targeted ads, but its personalised recommendation model and its effects perhaps most resemble Facebook’s tailored News Feeds. This is a feature of contemporary social media that users should be more acutely aware of and concerned about. However, it is also important in discussing and thinking about Netflix – which is distinct from Facebook and other social media companies – that the platform, its efforts and the people that use Netflix (producers or consumers) are not homogenised into one narrative, one more dark trajectory ready to be the subject of the next hyped up ‘Prestige TV Drama’.