Gaming the Netflix Recommendation Engine. Or Not?

In addition to trying to get my act together generally and accomplish Actual Life Tasks, I have also spent an embarrassing amount of time in the past couple of weeks on and My pretense is that this is all research since Grace and I have started posting on Heroine Content again, but in reality it’s just because it’s cold and dark at night and I am easily addicted to rating things and making virtual lists. It’s like shopping without spending.

I only started taking Netflix’s recommendations seriously when Grace shared her Heroine Content queue with me and I was jealous of how interesting it was. Mine is composed of basically stuff I have already heard of, whereas she has added a ton of stuff to her queue that Netflix suggested to her either based on her ratings or on the “more like this” feature. So while she writes reviews of documentaries about women who box, I watch Catwoman. The Halle Berry one. This hardly seems fair.

Netflix is very keen to have you rate films, and I have humored them over 1,150 times now. I’m still a little unclear on whether I’m doing it right, though. Netflix’s best guess on how I would rate Aliens was 3.3 stars out of 5.

I find this troubling.

Part of me wants to not think too much, kind of like when I took the SATs. I hated Catwoman, so I should rate it “hated it.” I’m not interested in seeing Charlie’s Angels 2 (especially if I already did and can’t remember), so I should click “not interested.” Right? The question becomes, do they know why I don’t like it? Are they really going to look at my high ratings for Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life and Tank Girl and say “oh, well then, we’ll show her recommendations for action films with female leads that don’t suck?” Their prediction of my vote on Aliens says maybe not. “Not Interested means you aren’t interested in this movie and movies like it,” they say, so how do I indicate that it can stop recommending Charlie’s Angels 2 because it sucks, but actually I am interested in movies like it, if by “like it” you mean action films with three female protagonists?

There is definitely a tone-deaf aspect to the way Netflix classifies movies. “Foreign” is one of the worst category offenders. There’s a vibe of “if you liked Amelie, you’ll like The Hidden Fortress.” Maybe that’s statistically true. Maybe they really can look at patterns within their bajillions of users and see that even though Amelie and The Hidden Fortress have nothing in common but subtitles, generally people who like one have a good chance of liking the other. Maybe they can pick up on the fact that I like Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life and Tank Girl for totally different reasons than a guy who rated both of those highly because of the cleavage.

(Heaven forbid I start allowing C-Man to rate anything, or I’ll be deluged with anime suggestions.)

Then again, this is all based on the theory that I’m going to miss something good if they don’t get it right. With 293 items in my queue and only a handful of them belonging to C-Man, it’s not like I’m going to run out anytime soon, but quantity and quality are two different things.

Yes, I realize that in the time I spent writing this post, I could have contributed something meaningful to the world. Some thoughts must be let out of my head and organized, though, or they will NOT leave me ALONE.

3 thoughts on “Gaming the Netflix Recommendation Engine. Or Not?

  1. Deidre

    Aw, I totally miss netflix and it’s recommendations. Some of them aren’t good – but I saw some pretty interesting films through their recommendations!

  2. Kate

    If you use watch instantly, you can get through those 293 items faster. (Or at least watch other items that you’d never consider watching if Netflix didn’t recommend them for you.) – K

  3. Bonnie

    I love Netflix. I don’t really pay attention to their recommendations, I go through their categories, click on Sortable List and then arrange it by rating. I have it streaming through Xbox live, so many of the movies in my queue I get to watch instantly.

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