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Netflix and User Data

Netflix and User Data

| On Feb 18, 2013

Andrew Leonard, How Netflix is Turning Viewers Into Puppets

For years Netflix has been analyzing what we watched last night to suggest movies or TV shows that we might like to watch tomorrow. Now it is using the same formula to prefabricate its own programming to fit what it thinks we will like. Isn’t the inevitable result of this that the creative impulse gets channeled into a pre-built canal?

It’s certainly possible to overstate the case here. One could argue that Netflix’s strategy is only a slightly more sophisticated version of what’s already been in place for, well, forever. We wouldn’t be seeing teenage vampires or zombies every time we turn on the TV if the money that bankrolls the content creation business hadn’t already decided that’s what we want to see. Actors who have the fortune to appear in hit movies or TV show get more parts to play. So what else is new?

But there’s a level of specificity made possible by Big Data that suggests we’re headed into new territory. “House of Cards” is just one symptom of a society-wide shift. The Obama campaign used the same kind of number crunching to target voters with more accuracy than any political campaign had ever accomplished before. Online advertisers are also gathering vast amounts of detailed information about us from our smartphones, our Facebook likes and our Google searches.

The sheer amount of data available to crunch is already phenomenal and is growing at an extraordinary rate. Last summer, at a panel discussion that included several significant players in the emerging Big Data universe, Michael Karasick, a V.P. at IBM Research, estimated that there is “a thousand exabytes of data on the planet anywhere.” An exabyte is one quintillion bytes, or one billion gigabytes. That’s a lot of ones and zeroes all by itself, but the mind-boggling part of the equation is that Karasick predicted that just two years from now there will be 9,000-10,000 exabytes of data on the planet.

The companies that figure out how to generate intelligence from that data will know more about us than we know ourselves, and will be able to craft techniques that push us toward where they want us to go, rather than where we would go by ourselves if left to our own devices. I’m guessing this will be good for Netflix’s bottom line, but at what point do we go from being happy subscribers, to mindless puppets?

Read the full post here.

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