The tweet was meant in good humour undoubtedly: a little post by Netflix, claiming 53 people watched A Christmas Prince 18 days in a row. A light hearted jibe, in the vein of banter so heavily mined by Nando’s. That figure, as some commentators suggested, may well even have been drawn from thin air – a symbolic number, if you like.
And yet the tweet inadvertently underlined an uncomfortable truth about both big data collection offered by services like Netflix or Spotify, and the power which all that information gives algorithms. Whether or not the number is true, Netflix knows a lot about you.
By now, in the wake of Snowden and Wikileaks, you’d be hard pressed to find a citizen in any democracy who didn’t have some inkling of public surveillance.
Yet in some ways, the equally pervasive work of our entertainment apps goes unnoticed.
Perhaps it’s because most of the time, it doesn’t go out of its way to draw our attention to its specificity or scope. The ‘magic sauce’ of recommendations from Spotify is not merely their accuracy, but equally their opacity. Pull back the curtain and instead of the Wizard, you find algorithms and reams and reams of data. Whilst a black box may not satisfy the more paranoid, it offers consumers space to insert a more positive image.
Indeed, as Netflix’s faux pas proved, drawing people’s attention to data collection processes which Hoover up personal (if not private, or strictly speaking sensitive) information is the best way to convince them they’re in the Panopticon.
Of course, there’s nothing to suggest Netflix has weaponised this data in any particular way, beyond recommendations and somewhat unfunny jokes. Even assuming that 53 people really did watch one movie once a day for nigh on three weeks, there’s still the question of what level of identity is available. Are people’s whole life details on offer for any employee to see and laugh at? It would seem unlikely. Far more probable would be data in aggregate – details which are anonymised in essence.
The best outcome to the outrage surrounding the tweet is not to pour on more fuel in social media moral panics, but to use it as a teachable moment. Regardless of how nefarious they are, the amount of information gleaned through entertainment platforms we use daily is immense – something which we as consumers on the other side can forget.
Secondly, it’s important to understand why, to big data analyst is, personal details are less key. Data in combination with other datasets allows them to discover details about a user which would be impossible to glean previously.
Finally, it’s key to acknowledge the centrality of algorithms. Not terrifying cybernetic creatures, they are the lifeblood of so muchblf what we do. Granted, algorithms are by no means neutral – think about risks in police algorithms and sentencing – but they can serve less dubious purposes too.
Big tech is most dangerous when we understand it less. We should be grateful for Netflix’s quite clear blunder: it offers an opportunity for just taking it.