| Partly thanks to 2020 pandemic binge-watching, Netflix gained new members approximately equivalent to the population of 15 U.S. states, nabbing a record-breaking total of 209 million customers. But they all have the same question: How the heck do I find something to watch on Netflix?
Instead of trying to figure it out ourselves or typing in a movie or show title, 80 percent of us rely on Netflix's recommendations — brought to you by 2,500 engineers armed with “multi-armed bandit algorithms” and “probabilistic graphical models” that live to please you by tracking what you like. They please you well enough that 93 percent of Netflix's original shows have gotten renewed for a second season, while Stone Age-style broadcast TV kills about two-thirds of the new shows it bet on.
Here are some fascinating fast facts about Netflix's recommendations to help you find what you want. (Spoiler alert: They don't really “know” you.)
1. Netflix manipulates the thumbnail artwork of the browsing page to try to catch you.
"If you don't capture a member's attention within 90 seconds, that member will likely lose interest,” writes Netflix's Nick Nelson. “Users spent an average of 1.8 seconds considering each title they were presented,” he adds.
Think that browsing folks are spending that 1.8 seconds reading the title and thinking about the show or film? Nope. While on Netflix, 82 percent of our focus is on the thumbnail artwork for each movie or show. “We were surprised by how much impact an image had,” writes Nelson, “and how little time we had to capture their interest.”
So they started trying to please you with an image chosen to match what all the data they're collecting on you says might appeal to your particular interests. They discovered that more than three faces per image drives us away, and that those faces must punch our emotional buttons hard and fast. “Humans are hardwired to respond to faces,” writes Nelson. “Faces with complex emotions outperform stoic or benign expressions.” For action films or kids’ entertainment, villains outperform while nice faces finish last. But it goes beyond that: You're possibly not seeing the same thumbnail your neighbor does. For viewers who like comedies, Good Will Hunting's Netflix page will often depict Robin Williams. Romance fans may see Minnie Driver smooching Matt Damon instead. Comedy aficionados see the kids in Stranger Things dressed as Ghostbusters; crime drama aficionados see an image of a cop in noir-ish fog.
Feel seen? Or spied on?