Felix Salmon has a decidedly different opinion than Alexis Madrigal about the advantage of Netflix’s recommendation algorithm:
The original Netflix prediction algorithm — the one which guessed how much you’d like a movie based on your ratings of other movies — was an amazing piece of computer technology, precisely because it managed to find things you didn’t know that you’d love. More than once I would order a movie based on a high predicted rating, and despite the fact that I would never normally think to watch it — and every time it turned out to be great. The next generation of Netflix personalization, by contrast, ratchets the sophistication down a few dozen notches: at this point, it’s just saying “well, you watched one of these Period Pieces About Royalty Based on Real Life, here’s a bunch more”.
Netflix, then, no longer wants to show me the things I want to watch, and it doesn’t even particularly want to show me the stuff I didn’t know I’d love. Instead, it just wants to feed me more and more and more of the same, drawing mainly from a library of second-tier movies and TV shows, and actually making it surprisingly hard to discover the highest-quality content. It’s a bit like what Pandora would be, if Pandora was severely constrained in the songs it could choose from.
Salmon’s main contention is that Netflix has adjusted its approach to its recommendation engine based on the fact that it no longer has a good library of streaming movies and TV shows to offer customers. It suffers, he argues, due to its diminishing content deals.
However, it’s possible both Salmon and Madrigal are right because they are approaching the issue — the inherent value of Netflix’s recommendations — from different angles. Netflix is morphing into essentially an Internet-version of HBO, which means it’s no longer just a streaming movie service.
Like HBO’s recent transition on cable, Netflix really just wants to offer other content to augment it’s original shows and make the subscription price feel worth it. Nobody complains that HBO doesn’t have all the movies in the world to stream. In fact, who the hell cares about what movies HBO even offers? The original TV shows are the only thing that matters; everything else is just filler.
Salmon seems most miffed that Netflix is no longer primarily a movie service. He’s indifferent to Netflix’s TV ambitions. As a result, he’s disappointed that the service’s recommendation algorithm has changed and become mostly useless to him. Madrigal, on the other hand, is looking purely at the massive data Netflix generates, how and why they do that (to power the company’s TV ambitions), and comes away impressed.