Who’s Watching What You’re Watching?


Netflix recently garnered a lot of attention with this Tweet:

The reasons for this huge amount of interest was because:

1)     It is highly amusing

2)     It unveiled the minute degree of detail the streaming giant has about user’s viewing activities

Even though those mentioned in the Tweet were completely anonymous, it seemed a lot of people hadn’t realised that Netflix would be keeping that close an eye on their customers’ habits and so were unsettled by this.

Now obviously in this day and age, our privacy is valued higher than ever – we’re all too familiar with the ads that follow you around from that shop you briefly visited. This sort of tracking is different though, this isn’t a scenario where your data is being unexpectedly shared with other parties. The very act of choosing to stream a video from Netflix, means they need to know what content to send you – you told them what you were watching. You log back in and it remembers where you stopped off on an unfinished program and there’s even a “Popular on Netflix” feed on the homepage. All that information was already being tracked, it would be senseless for Netflix to not then analyse it as well.

Of course they’re not the only ones recording this sort of information – Amazon Prime Video will be doing it too, the BBC iPlayer and 4OD. TV channels used to have to estimate their viewing figures by placing physical tracking devices in a subset of viewers homes and basing it on whatever they happened to choose to watch. Now in the age of online streaming, they can capture exact figures of how many people choose to watch a program but also – what point viewers drop off, is there certain episodes or snippets that viewers go back and watch again, are certain programs more popular at different times of day. And it’s not just video content – Spotify, Deezer and chums are all doing the same thing with music streaming. The Kindle tracks how far users read in their eBooks.

This can actually be a good thing. It means more shows/music/books likely to appeal to you can be suggested and more content can be produced that is likely to appeal to audiences. House of Cards on Netflix was famously commissioned because Netflix noticed there was a significant overlap between viewers that watched the original BBC version of the show and fans of Kevin Spacey movies (possibly less of them these days). There’s a huge trend in making TV shows based on popular, but not overly famous, movies recently – Twelve Monkeys, Frequency, Limitless. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find those original movies had decent repeat viewing figures on streaming services.

We do a lot of similar analysis behind the scenes when building/maintain websites using analytics of user activities – does one style of link getting clicked more than others, is there a certain page where users suddenly drop off in large numbers? This allows us to find what does and doesn’t work for end users and help improve their browsing experience. Sand down the jagged edges, so to speak.

The thing that worries me though is this – changing a website based on what’s popular amongst users is one thing, but what if content creators start building all their content around what was previously popular? Imagine a film or a TV show built to a formula – wouldn’t we lose the magic of what made the prior content special? And if this test-tube concoction did happen to be successful and popular – what would follow next? Just more of the same? Would we fall into that same danger of music recommendation services suggesting similar content to what you’ve been listening to, which you then listen to and so get suggested the same – falling into a loop of ever narrowing variety?

To go out on a limb here, I would say this nightmare scenario has already happened in the world of popular music. From the 60s through to the 80s, “pop artists” made their were way up to the top of the charts from their garages and recording studios based on the quality and appeal of their music. It was a natural organic experience and gave us everything from The Beatles to MC Hammer. But then in the late 90s, the corporate grip on music tightened and we started seeing artists and groups – predominantly boy and girl bands – being put together by industry executives. Instead of the magical serendipity of the right creative minds having bumped into each other but rather following a strict process of auditions and training to find those with the “right” face, the “right” voice, the “right” level of charisma. Songs were written by a committee of experts, voices tuned to match the correct pattern – all based on what worked last time. The result of course was huge profits for record labels but (in my mind at least) the death of original pop music. It was only the advent of the internet and the ability of independent artists to easily produce and distribute their own music that saved us from enduring an eternity of SpiceZone and McBusted (no wait, that one actually happened).

My point is this – as much as I adore Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, I don’t want to spend the next few years wading through clones of them. When it comes to creative content like music and TV shows, it’s the new thing that comes out of nowhere, the thing like nothing before it that will excite people.

David Storey