Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

How Does Netflix Know You Better Than You?

Netflix

If you want to come off as sophisticated, worldly, or artistically aware, you might want to think twice before sharing your Netflix recommendations.

The engineers over at the Netflix Silicon Valley HQ recently estimated that their algorithm drives 75 percent of viewer activity on Netflix based on your personal megadata. Even more, they can pinpoint just what shows and movies you’re willing to watch based on the time of day, day of the week, and even the device you’re operating. The result is pretty revealing for the so-called film buffs out there.

“People rate movies like Schindler’s List high, as opposed to one of the silly comedies I watch, like Hot Tub Time Machine,” Netflix engineering director Xavier Amatraian told Wired.com. “If you give users recommendations that are all four- or five-star videos, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually want to watch that video on a Wednesday night after a long day at work. Viewing behavior is the most important data we have.

“We know that many of the ratings are aspirational rather than reflecting your daily activity. A lot of people tell us they often watch foreign movies or documentaries. But in practice, that doesn’t happen very much.”

So how can they tell the difference between the Roger Eberts of the world and the people just kidding themselves?

A team of 800-plus Netflix engineers collect your megadata and look at your viewing behavior, which includes everything from browser history and searches to the way you scroll through your movie selections. The company even has a devoted freelance team of more than 40 people hand-tagging movies and television shows for similar indicators between content. So unfortunately, it knows whether you really meant to give that obscure foreign flick a five-star rating, or if you tuned out before the title flashed on the screen.

The first Netflix algorithm dates back to 2006, when CEO Reed Hastings awarded a $1 million prize to a group of international engineers as part of a company-run contest. But it wasn't anything as advanced as the one we use today.

This summer, the company unveiled its new profile feature, which enables family members to delineate their preferences while using the same Netflix account. So far, it’s been a big success. Though, not all have been gems. In June, Netflix launched Max, a program which enables users the ability to choose new titles as if they were on a game show. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t their best idea.

Despite some of these missed ploys to hook you into its streaming service, Netflix continues to advance in many ways beyond us. So maybe it’s better to give into the powers of Netflix, sit back and enjoy Hot Tub Time Machine without feeling the least bit guilty.