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Netflix, as you may have heard, is killing off its stars. At a recent news conference at its headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif., the company announced it was shedding its former one-to-five-star rating system in favor of binary digits: namely, thumbs up or thumbs down.
“Now it’s easier to tell us what you like,” the site promises.
The writing had been on the wall. When I visited the company in 2012, full of questions about how it turned my methodical rating behavior into recommendations about what to watch next, Netflix’s vice president of product innovation, Todd Yellin, told me the firm was “de-emphasizing” ratings in its algorithms.
Stars were on the out for several reasons. For one, Netflix was transitioning from a DVD rental business to a streaming company. It was less reliant on you telling it what you liked (via ratings), because it could already tell what you liked — simply by analyzing what you had watched.
And there tended to be a gulf between the two behaviors. People rated aspirationally, but they watched situationally. Yes, you did give That Important Documentary five stars when you got around to watching it, but at the end of a trying day at the office, you more often settled on viewing some pleasing pap like “The Ridiculous 6.”
This sort of virtue signaling, often undercut by divergent behavior, is everywhere — witness the discrepancies that sometimes occur between polling and actual voting in elections. And it’s generally a one-way process: No one gives Adam Sandler’s latest five stars and then secretly watches “The Sorrow and the Pity.”
But why aspirational reviewing should happen on Netflix is intriguing, given that no one else sees your Netflix queue. It’s just you, clicking your way to a better version of yourself.
Another reason for Netflix’s shift from stars to thumbs is that, in the term of data scientists, star ratings are statistically “noisy.” I may have spent a few minutes rationalizing my three-and-a-half star rating — “Well, the direction was a bit flaccid, but the story was an interesting take on globalization and the cinematography was amazing” — but from a recommendation standpoint, that wasn’t all that much more useful than simply saying whether I liked it or not.
The music company Pandora once tried to solicit listeners’ opinions on why they thumbed a song up or down. The experiment quickly ended when the company realized that there was essentially nothing they could do with the wildly varying responses.
And even when people are given star-rating options, the responses, as research has shown, tend to cluster in the one-star and five-star endpoints — serving as a de facto thumbs up or down. (This was one reason YouTube also ditched its stars in favor of thumbs.) The thumb, as anyone who has seen “Gladiator” knows, is certainly a powerful, clear signal — though, interestingly, there is some scholarly argument that thumbs up signaled the end for a vanquished gladiator. Roman audiences knew what they liked.
Of course, it is hard to resist the notion that Netflix’s decision represents some kind of dumbing down.
Recently, in a bathroom at Frankfurt Airport, I came across a sign that asked: “Satisfied with the cleanliness of this restroom today?” Below were three buttons: a green happy face, a yellow neutral face and a red sad face. This simple interface seemed appropriate to the task; I am sure the airport management did not require a more detailed analysis from me of its restroom hygiene (“While I appreciated the level of polish on the tiles, I felt the hand dryer could have been slightly warmer”).
But a film, in theory, is a more complex experience than a trip to the toilet. Should our responses be so streamlined, so channeled into the world of internet “A/B” preference-testing?
The Netflix move seems another example of what Alicia Eler and Eve Peyser, in an essay in The New Inquiry, call “the tinderization of feeling.” The dating app Tinder, they argue, “is a metaphor for speeding up and mechanizing decision making, turning us into binary creatures who can bypass underlying questions and emotions and instead go with whatever feels really good in the moment.”
In a world of vastly proliferating consumer choice, it is small wonder we should turn to the quickest, most primitive gestures to express judgments. After all, we know what we like. But these binary snap decisions should give us pause.
Every fast click on Facebook also serves to steer us deeper into our own proclivities; our every bleary post-binge-watch thumbs-up gives us more of the same, more of what we “like.” But in this one-click world, we should not forget that many of the best, most lasting works of art — novels, paintings, films — were things that, in their day, very often got the thumbs down.
I have lately been spending less time on Netflix, and more time on a new streaming service, FilmStruck, which includes the holdings of TCM and the Criterion Collection. On the site, there are neither stars nor thumbs, as if to say: While you may or may not “like” every film here, we think they are all worth your time. This I like.
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