By now it’s painfully clear that Netflix is tracking everything about you, from the fact that you’re sharing your password with your friends, to the fact that you enjoy “Campy Prison Movies” or “Heartfelt Biographical 20th Century Period Pieces” (and can actually name one), to the fact that you’ve been watching Orange Is The New Black for so long now, you need to click here to confirm to Netflix you’re not dead. But who’s doing the tracking?, you might have wondered, during one of your rare moments of active thought.
Wired found out by talking with Carlos Gomez-Uribe, “VP of product innovation and personalization algorithms,” and Xavier Amatriain, engineering director, and discussing how they determine what goes into Netflix’s recommendations, and how this means they know exactly what you’re watching. And therefore what you’re lying about watching.
For starters, they and their army of more than 40 freelance analysts (all “TV and film buffs”) hand-tag shows and movies using purely “objective” criteria, which is why there’s not a genre called “Because You Watched Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami, You Need To Go Do Some Charity Work.” Then they track and analyze every single thing you do—including when you scrolled by Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami over and over and said, “Ha ha, that show is so dumb and awful… Wouldn’t it be funny if I watched it right now?”
Then they use that to make recommendations for stuff maybe you didn’t actually watch, but they know lurks deep down in your heart. In the near future, they even plan to have “contextual recommendations” based on the time of day, what device you’re using, and maybe even your location. So when you’re teetering on a rooftop edge contemplating suicide, your smartphone can say, “Hey, maybe now’s a good time to check out Kourtney & Khloe, because you’ve already given up.”
But most importantly, Netflix knows you’ve been lying about what you like, ostensibly to impress them: “A lot of people tell us they often watch foreign movies or documentaries,” Goez-Uribe says. “But in practice, that doesn’t happen very much.” In other words, it knows, and that’s why you keep getting recommendations for “Critically Acclaimed Foreign Dramas That You Will Just Ignore Because, Holy Shit, We Have All The Seasons of Cheers. Remember That One Where Cliff Went On Jeopardy?”