Image via Brian Cantoni / Flickr (CC 2.0)

Netflix’s algorithms are more limiting than they are liberating

No wonder it always seems like there’s nothing to watch.

Internet Culture

Published Jan 21, 2016   Updated May 27, 2021, 8:16 am CDT

I’ve wasted hundreds of hours browsing Netflix—no, not watching, but browsing—scavenging through it, like a hungry animal on the prowl, hunting for something worthy of my attention and dedication. My eyes graze over the surface of that familiar plane of posters, seeing each storyline trapped within its own tiny thumbnail, jutting out from the page at the touch of my cursor, they beg: Watch me! Choose me! But, in the age of the internet, choice is more a hindrance than a help, and among the dozens of possible options, nothing stands out. Is this why I pay subscription fees every month—to spend more time in search of something to watch than watching the thing itself?

Don’t get me wrong, Netflix is filled to the brim with great content, and whether it’s critically-acclaimed, comedic, or simply compelling, just about anyone can find something worth streaming on the website. Still, most nights, I browse in vain, faced with the problem of deciding, time and time again, what should I watch?

On Netflix, familiarity masquerades as something new, and the streaming service presents us with a whole range of choices that, upon closer inspection, are revealed to be a lot more of the same old thing.

At a glance, the choices seem infinite: hilarious chronicles of yuppie New Yorkers living in their so-shabby-it’s-chic apartments, Oscar-winning biopics about inspirational figures from the 20th century, edgy sci-fi flicks with premises that are as far-fetched as they are fascinating. Do these suggestions sound familiar? It’s probably because they are. Netflix uses a complex system of algorithms to tailor selections to each user’s particular interests—that is, it shows us more of what we like, and less of what we don’t. It’s the Silicon Valley company’s updated version of a classic boutique sales strategy, and, more often than not, it works like a charm.

Are you a fan of Mad Men? Well then, probably, you’ll love House of Cards, Suits and Downton Abbey too! Or maybe The Breakfast Club is more your thing, so check out Clueless, Skins and How I Met Your Mother! Let yourself fall down the rabbit hole of craveable content, with every new suggestion seeming to offer the same delights as what you love already. On Netflix, familiarity masquerades as something new, and the streaming service presents us with a whole range of choices that, upon closer inspection, are revealed to be a lot more of the same old thing.


Lately, there’s been a lot of chatter online about the brilliance and innovation of Netflix’s approach to media. As it turns out, Netflix content is categorized within one (or more) of its 76,897 hidden subgenres, and an intricate system of algorithms determines what a user wants to watch, even when they might not be too sure themselves. According to Netflix officials, an estimated 75 percent of viewing activity is “driven by recommendations,” a staggering number that demonstrates the company’s ability to keep us watching, autoplaying our way deep into the abyss of on-demand content. It’s “niche marketing” at its finest, so successful because it recommends content that appeals to a user’s unique passions and peculiarities—enticing them to sit back, relax, and set their sights on the subgenres with the most allure.

For the most part, this is a good thing. Netflix encourages its viewers to watch more of what they love, inviting them to indulge in their personal obsessions for hours on end—all while they navigate the site’s landscape of content with either a “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down,” honing-in on their sense of selves in the process. Nowadays, a person’s viewing habits are a reflection of their unique interests and investments, and a watchlist might very well have more to say about someone’s character than any resumé or twitter bio ever could.

Watching Netflix has become a private and isolated experience of self-indulgence, and, despite the prevalence of “Netflix and Chill” jokes circling the web, for most of us, it’s an entirely solitary endeavour. Netflix creates a niche to perfectly accommodate each person’s unique needs, and once settled there, it seems unfathomable for any of us to step outside our pre-set comfort zones. Even if we don’t admit it, most of us are reluctant to experiment with a show or film whose unique equation of actors, writers and story don’t add up to equal the predetermined outcome of, well, “me.”

This is the problem at the heart of niche viewership—one that almost no one is talking about. The word “niche” originates from the Latin word for “nest,” and I’ll be the first to confess that I’ve become far too passive and complaisant in the one that Netflix has fashioned for me.


When it comes to decision-making, the algorithmically-driven platform suppresses my choices more than it supports them, distancing me from content that doesn’t match-up with my existing preferences. Often, I’m desperate to escape the rows and rows of selections that the system assigns to me, as if Netflix were the nagging coworker who insists on me watching a show that, frankly, is of no interest.

If only there were a way to reorient oneself towards the platform’s offerings, washing-away the expectation of fulfilling personal desires, and diving deep into those pools of content in search of new experiences instead. Unfortunately, in the lingo of Netflix’s niche cultures, the word “new” so rarely describes innovation or experimentation, instead, it’s just more similarity in the form of something you haven’t seen before. No wonder it seems like there’s nothing to watch!

Unfortunately, in the lingo of Netflix’s niche cultures, the word “new” so rarely describes innovation or experimentation, instead, it’s just more similarity in the form of something you haven’t seen before.  

The problem is that within the apparent plentitude of Netflix’s offerings, there is actually a real poverty—one that is the direct consequence of an interface that tells you what to watch, rather than the other way around. As Netflix users, we’re trapped by an algorithm of imprisonment, held captive within a system that predetermines what is worth watching and what isn’t. If film and television have the unique ability to break down the boundaries that exist between people, then Netflix’s niche categories work to solidify the divides between them—making it more and more difficult for viewers to see the world through the eyes of the other.

Let me urge you to ditch your existing loyalties and become more promiscuous with your viewing habits, trespassing the borders of Netflix’s preset recommendations to seek out content from across the spectrum. After all, culture shouldn’t be thought of as a mirror, but as a window instead—one that looks bravely into unfamiliar worlds of difference and diversity. That is, so long as you have the will to open it up.

Quinn O’Gallagher studies pop culture and media at McGill University in Montreal. He writes about the collision between personal experiences and mass communications, unpacking the politics of our everyday digital lives. Follow him on Twitter @quinnogallagher. 

A version of this story originally appeared on Medium and has been reprinted with permission. 

Image via Brian Cantoni / Flickr (CC 2.0) 

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*First Published: Jan 21, 2016, 4:51 pm CST