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Keep Movin’ On Up, Netflix

September 23, 2009

Hey Netflix, I like where you’re going with your recent efforts to improve your movie recommendation system by at least 10 percent. You deserve credit for not just paying lip service to the idea—you recently awarded a team of seven scientists a $1 million prize for improving your system by 10.6% through their innovations. Apparently, their improvements may even be applicable to other Web businesses that make recommendations based on users’ stated preferences. So, well done, Netflix.

But, my dear friends with the red envelopes, I entreat you to keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t settle for 10.6%. After you explain to the world how one measures improvement of a subjective system with such precision (seriously, how did you guys measure such a thing down to tenths of a percent?), I say you gotta keep going. Here are a few suggestions for places you might want to start in your quest for the next 10.6% improvement.

1. The Color System. Let’s say a user likes the treacly, manipulative Tom Hanks message-fest The Green Mile. Some recommendation systems would take him or her right to other Hanks vehicles (Big, Forrest Gump, etc.) or even other inspirational prison films (The Shawshank Redemption). Those make sense, of course, but why not keep it even simpler and just do other movies with “Green” in the title? Fried Green Tomatoes, Soylent Green, How Green Was My Valley…film buffs will appreciate the seemingly random connections and recommendations, but we’ll know they won’t truly be random. You could also go with movies that feature “green” themes or plot elements: Wall Street (green money), Romancing the Stone (green gems), or Ghostbusters (green slime). The principle works almost as well with “Red”—Red Dawn, Reds, and The Hunt for Red October, for example. But you can’t do it with “Blue”—that’s just silly. Otherwise, The Color System can’t miss.

2. The Hitchcock Connection. Netflix users who positively rate an Alfred Hitchcock thriller classic should automatically be recommended the Christopher Guest mockumentaries (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, For Your Consideration) that feature the endlessly funny character actor Michael Hitchcock. He’s also in the cult sci-fi fave Serenity. He’s plainly awesome, and those movies should be seen by everyone. The Hitchcock Connection is an obvious boost to the power and credibility of your recommendations, and if your prize-winning researchers didn’t already include this in their new system, I’m gonna have to call shenanigans on that claim of 10.6% improvement.

3. The Vin Diagram. A simple principle based on the Venn Diagram, where two or more seemingly separate populations are graphically represented as circles, and the degree of similarity they share is indicated by how much those circles intersect (lots of funny examples at Graphjam, and here’s another one of my favorites at BoingBoing). The idea behind the Vin Diagram is simple and demonstrably true: the population of Vin Diesel movies should intersect with absolutely no other film groupings. So, when a user rates Pitch Black as “totally ass-kicking,” he should receive recommendations only for other Vin Diesel movies. Satisfaction with your ratings system among those not interested in Vin Diesel movies will skyrocket as soon as they no longer have to see that oaf during their Netflix browsing. [And while you’re at it, can you just stop carrying The Fast & The Furious altogether?]

4. The Zombie Factor. TBTS has already recognized and analyzed zombies as a huge, and still growing, pop culture phenomenon. I’ve been using ShowBox for a month now and Netflix, your recommendation system has to keep up with the times. The best place to start? Make all zombie-related film inquiries automatically lead to a Zombie Planet recommendation. [Also, you should probably hone your vampire recommendations if you haven’t already. But please don’t tell me I should watch True Blood. Save that recommendation for people who actually want insulting and egregiously fake Southern accents in their pulpy TV melodrama.]

5. The Skinflix Enhancement. Offering adult film rentals has nothing to do with improving your recommendation system, I admit. But your customers, some of them at least, would certainly reach an entirely different level of “satisfaction.” If you do adopt this idea, one urgent request: use different sleeves and envelopes when you begin circulating adult film DVDs. When you send me Season 1 of The Big Bang Theory, I shouldn’t have to touch the same envelope a previous customer used to return something else called “The Big Bang Theory.”

So, nice job so far, Netflix, but beans don’t burn on the grill. I’ve given you five ways that you can keep movin’ on up. Now it’s your turn at bat.

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2 Comments
  1. PMcD permalink
    September 23, 2009 5:56 pm

    The old page Netflix used to have that showed weekly new releases still exists, and can be found here:

    http://www.netflix.com/AllNewReleases?lnkctr=NavAllNewReleases

    So, suggestion six would be to use the above link and ignore their “suggestions” altogether.

  2. Matt Shorr permalink*
    September 23, 2009 9:00 pm

    Alan, great call on the Zombie Planet suggestion. Folks, be sure to check the link. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie or its sequel (cryptically titled Zombie Planet 2), prepare to have your minds blown. Pay special attention to the character Tom, who gives perhaps the best performance in cinema history.

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