House of Cards: When You’re Watching Netflix, Netflix is Watching You

House of Cards Netflix Kevin Spacey Robin Wright
Everyone knows that Netflix and other streaming media sites gather data from their users. That’s how they make those creepily good recommendations for other shows they think you might want to see. But, with its new original series, House of Cards, Netflix has taken “Big Data” even farther. The decision to produce the show, its casting, and its marketing were all driven by Netflix data. House of Cards is really made of data.

According to this story, the advent of data-driven programming paves a short path to media hell. The article argues that viewers of House of Cards are entering an endless feedback loop where they’re given a show the data says they should like, and then their tastes are educated by that show to like shows like it. Soon, we’re all puppets of Big Data, and original programming morphs into a narrower and narrower range of shows that validate each other.

I’m not so sure.

Netflix House of Cards

By all accounts, House of Cards is an excellent show, and Kevin Spacey is brilliant and well-cast. Mightn’t it be that Netflix viewers liked the original British version of House of Cards because it was interesting? Couldn’t it be that those same viewers also like Kevin Spacey because he’s an excellent actor? It is at all remotely possible that the Netflix data sets actually reflected reasonable trends among its viewers?

And let’s not forget that data don’t speak for themselves. Someone at Netflix is writing algorithms that parse those data. Someone else (probably many someone elses) is interpreting the data that those algorithms spit out. And, once the analysis has been done, someone else is deciding which projects suggested by the data should go forward and how. The fear that data will turn us into puppets seems like something from the 70’s. Haven’t most 21st century folks figured out by now that people program computers?

So, is it a little creepy to think that Netflix is trying to figure out why I paused Jiro Dreams of Sushi just after the first interview with his son? (I had to go to the bathroom.) Sure. I don’t relish being observed any more than the next guy. But, do I think that Netflix is going to dumb down media by paying attention to our viewing habits? Nope. In fact, if House of Cards is any indication of the sort of programming that Big Data will support, it looks to me like we could be in for some very high quality entertainment.

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