Netflix preferences can tell you a lot about a person. One study has already proven a person's Netflix preferences impact how attractive they may seem to others. Depending on what kind of person someone is (Film Bro? Horror creep?) one can even discern what to watch as formulated in this Ultimate Netflix and Chill Guide. But what can a person's Netflix preferences really say about them when Netflix's algorithm (that creates recommendations informing these preferences) is flawed? Netflix's algorithm groups all black films together, regardless of genre.
In an essay for MarieClaire.com April Joyner writes about the streaming service's racial blindspot. Hardly the first to note the issue she cites Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood who called out Netflix after noticing the recommendations paired with her film Beyond the Lights. Films and TV shows with black leads appeared in the recommendations. Another example provided by Joyner was a Paste magazine editor's experience seeing Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler's 2013 drama about a black man killed by police, paired with 1980s Cosby Show spinoff A Different World.
Discussing the algorithm an assistant professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies who studies technology and cultural bias Safiya Noble said, "There's always human decision-making and human bias in these platforms." Whereas director, screenwriter, and producer, Stephen Winter criticized the algorithm for isolating "black works." "There's a cultural shift that has to happen, where people, basically, stop putting us in the ghetto," said Winter.
MarieClaire.com spoke to a former Netflix engineer, who remained anonymous. The engineer explained how the "more like this" recommendations are prompted by what other Netflix users watch. Joyner writes, "So if many people have watched both Beyond the Lights and Fruitvale Station on Netflix, those titles may end up being associated with each other, even if they're otherwise dissimilar."
"Algorithms have a finely tuned ability to recognize social patterns, and they can overgeneralize those patterns," said the former Netflix employee. Joyner wrote about refuting those generalizations: “There's also the slight shoving-it-down-your-throat feeling, which makes the recommendations tougher to stomach. Just because I'm black—and even though I am keen to support black filmmakers—doesn't mean every single movie or show I watch needs to feature black actors or be about "black stories."
The other problem tackled in Joyner's essay is the lack of black content leading to the weird recommendations previously mentioned. This of course is traced back to hollywood's diversity issues—most recently focused on in terms of race—but which also includes gender identity, sexuality, and disability. That's the bigger problem here, but until that's solved, the least Netflix can do is fix its algorithm.