Future Tense

Tell Netflix What TV Shows and Movies You’d Like to Watch With This Cool Feature

The choice is yours. Sort of.

Netflix

Netflix’s streaming services have always operated according to the illusion of choice. Though its inventory is enormous, the specifics of its listings are controlled by licensing agreements and audience analysis that can feel obscure, if not downright alienating, from the outside. Titles appear and disappear so arbitrarily that Slate maintains a monthly column rounding up the films and shows you should watch before they’re gone. In fact, Netflix’s sophisticated recommendation algorithms arguably exist in part to paper over its finite selection. Never have we had more power over our media consumption and less control over what we consume.

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Now, the company is promising to allay that dilemma, if only slightly: It’s created a page that allows users to suggest TV shows or movies they’d like to watch. The page’s interface offers options for three proposals, letting visitors type in whatever they want. Refresh after submitting them, and you’re welcome to propose a few more. Since the submissions appear to be tied to individual user accounts, however, it seems as though it would be difficult to individually game the system.

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There are plenty of caveats about this feature, not least of which is that it may not be all that helpful. Users on Reddit’s r/Netflix subreddit have acknowledged as much, even as they’ve enthused over the page’s existence. “Fat chance [Game of Thrones] will ever come to Netflix since HBO is rushing to make their own streaming service better,” one complains. Even Netflix itself points to similar limitations, encouraging its customers to familiarize themselves with the complexities of its licensing deals—or at least with the mere fact that those deals are complex—before they dive in. But you can imagine groups of fans creating campaigns for small films that might not have been on the site’s radar before.

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This isn’t the first time Netflix has incorporated an option of this nature. Almost a decade ago, the site Hacking Netflix identified a similar suggestion box buried within the company’s “Contact Us” interface. According to comments on Hacking Netflix, however, that feature was later removed. Other, less formal, channels—including customer support live chat—have remained, and at least one commenter on r/Netflix claims that those suggestions really do work. This newer system, with its multiple suggestion boxes, appears to be much more robust.

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As always, though, there’s reason to be skeptical here.  Netflix did not immediately respond to a request for more details, and there’s little information on the page about how—and if—user suggestions will be put to work. Its primary function may well be to free up customer service representatives, who apparently spend a lot of time fielding requests, if Reddit’s users are any indication.

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Much like complaining to a representative who may or may not have any power to help, the suggestion page helps to give back some semblance—if only a semblance—of control to the company’s customers. Whatever practical functions it serves, it’s also akin the company’s other PR efforts, including its in house anthropologist, who—as I’ve argued in the past—helps to put a human face on the big data-driven company without really changing its operational strategies.

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In truth, Netflix probably already knows a great deal about what you want to watch. It was, for example, probably aware that I had repeatedly searched for the Claire Denis classic Beau Travail long before I submitted a formal request. And it probably has exacting data on how many customers who wanted to watch The French Collection (not available) settled for that film’s 1975 sequel (available, inexplicably) instead. Those metrics, which map on to actual viewing and engagement patterns are likely far more useful to the company than whatever its customers claim they want to watch.

Nevertheless, in an increasingly algorithmic world, it’s nice to be given some sliver of agency. If you like watching movies on Netflix, you might also like telling Netflix what to stream.

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