Netflix and faux-diversity

Published

Credit: Netflix

Scott McDonald
Writer

When you open your Netflix account, you may notice that the artwork for a film has changed between sessions. You may simply write it off as Netflix deciding that this image is better than the one from yesterday – this is not the case. In December 2017, Netflix introduced the latest development to their recommendations system – personalised artwork for all of their content, based on each user’s viewing history. That new artwork you are shown when you login is a result of Netflix adapting to your interests. What’s the problem with that you may ask? The film stills selected to represent the films in your selection may provide a very flawed impression of how diverse that selection actually is.

Although we might not consider how much images influence us, Netflix has focused efforts on this area for a very specific reason. In 2016, Netflix’s global manager of creative services Nick Nelson stated that the online streaming platform “conducted some consumer research studies that indicated artwork was not only the biggest influencer to a member’s decision to watch content, but it also constituted over 82% of their focus while browsing Netflix. We also saw that users spent an average of 1.8 seconds considering each title they were presented with while on Netflix”. Netflix have clearly made picking the right images for each film a key part of their strategy to make us explore more of their content.

The logic and process behind tailoring artwork to each different user is simple enough. In their announcement blog detailing the new artwork personalisation system, Netflix give an example of how they might tailor artwork to each viewer depending on their viewing history; for example, someone who watches many Uma Thurman films might find her on the artwork for Pulp Fiction whilst the artwork shown to a different user for the same film may feature John Travolta if that user watches many of his films. In this example, the artwork of the film being tailored towards each user is not problematic as each actor is featured prominently in the film – it is unlikely that anyone watching Pulp Fiction for Uma Thurman will feel that Netflix has falsely advertised the film to them.

However, the system does not alter their artwork based solely on a consumer’s preference for one actor or actress; a user’s preferences are viewed in far more general terms. If you have previously watched Beasts of No Nation and Luther then the artwork for many items in the library might be altered to show the black characters in those films, rather than just highlighting Idris Elba in any film or show he appears in. Returning to the Pulp Fiction example, advertising the film to users who have shown an interest in films with black protagonists by using artwork featuring Samuel L. Jackson would not raise any issues, as he is a key character within the film – it is not misleading to suggest he has a large amount of screen time. However, we start to be a little more skeptical of the moral value behind this strategy when the images shown do not only put key characters at the forefront. In one instance, Netflix user Stacia L. Brown, host of the podcast Hope Cast, reported the artwork for the film Like Father (starring Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer) shown to her featured black actors Leonard Ouzts and Blaire Brooks, who she reported had perhaps as little as ten minutes of screen time between them. Similarly, other users reported that the artwork for Love Actually advertised the film to them using Chiwetel Ejiofor despite his minor role in a large ensemble cast.

There are a number of issues with this: most insidiously, it is invasive, racially targeted marketing which assumes users will want to watch content which has the mere presence of actors of certain ethnicities instead of featuring those actors in prominent roles. However, it also grossly misrepresents the content of many films in Netflix’s library to make their content seem far more ethnically diverse than it actually is.

Netflix have adopted a clear, strong stance on having content for everyone and a library as diverse as its user base – a genuinely admirable goal considering the massive widespread availability of the service and the variety of consumers they must cater to. In 2018, the company produced their first Nigerian Netflix original film, Lionheart, and made a foray into arthouse contents with Roma, the Oscar-buzzing film by Alfonso Cuaron. It is great to see Netflix diversifying the projects it chooses to support – it would be difficult to argue that this is not a positive step forward for the company, and the film industry as a whole. However, by artificially making their content appear more ethnically diverse than it actually is these efforts are overshadowed by the harm the current Netflix algorithm causes.

The lack of ethnic diversity in the film industry is still a large problem. It should be addressed, not covered by generating a visual illusion for users. Though Netflix takes a step towards solving that issue by promoting and producing more ethnically diverse films, they take two steps back by creating a false sense of diversity through their current algorithm.