Netflix’s dystopian Korean drama The Squid Game is the biggest streaming show ever, with 111 million viewers watching at least two minutes of the episode.
Out of the thousands of programs available on Netflix around the world, how do so many people end up watching the same show? The simple answer is an algorithm – a computer program that offers us personalized recommendations for the platform based on our data and the data of other users.
Streaming platforms such as Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime have undoubtedly changed the way we consume media, primarily by dramatically increasing the amount of movies, music and TV available to viewers.
How do we deal with so many options? Services like Netflix use algorithms to direct our attention in certain directions, organize content and keep us active on the platform. As soon as we open the app, the personalization process begins.
Our cultural landscape is now automated, not just a product of our past experiences, past and social circles. These algorithms not only suit our tastes, they also shape and influence them.
But focusing too much on the algorithm overlooks another important cultural transformation that has taken place. To make all of this content manageable, streaming platforms have introduced us to new ways of organizing culture. The categories used to divide culture into genres have always been important, but they have taken on new forms and strength through streaming.
We classify our tastes
The streaming capabilities have inspired a new ‘classification imagination’. I coined this term to describe how looking at the world through genres, labels and categories helps shape our own identity and sense of place in the world.
While 50 years ago you could discover several genres of music through friends or by going to a music store, the advent of streaming has brought classification and genres into our media consumption on a massive scale. Spotify alone has over five thousand music genres. Listeners also come up with their own genre labels when creating playlists. We are constantly being fed new labels and categories when we consume music, movies and television.
Thanks to these categories, our tastes can be more specific and eclectic, and our identity more flexible. These personalized recommendations and algorithms can also shape our tastes. My personal review from Spotify towards the end of the year stated that “chamber psychology” – a category I’d never heard of – was my second favorite genre. I found myself looking to find out what it was and find artists related to it.
These hyper-specific categories are created and stored in metadata – the behind-the-scenes codes that support platforms like Spotify. They serve as the basis for individual recommendations and help us decide what we consume. If we think of Netflix as a huge archive of television and film footage, how it is organized with metadata decides what is found in it.
On Netflix, thousands of categories range from familiar movie genres such as horror, documentaries, and melodrama to the super-specific “campy foreign films of the 1970s.”
While Squid Game is labeled “Korean, Thriller, Drama” to the public, there are thousands of more specific categories in Netflix’s metadata that define our consumption. The personalized homepage uses algorithms to suggest specific genre categories as well as specific shows to you. Since most of this is in metadata, we may not know which categories are served to us.
Take Squid Game, for example – it’s entirely possible that the way to achieve a major launch is in part due to the algorithmic promotion of highly viewed content. His success is an example of how algorithms can leverage what is already popular. As with social media, once a trend starts to catch on, algorithms can draw even more attention to it. Netflix categories do the same thing too, telling us which programs are popular or popular in our region.
Who controls everything?
As ordinary media consumers, we are still on the verge of understanding the workings and potential of these recommendation algorithms. We must also consider some of the potential implications of the classification imagination.
Classifying a culture can prevent us from accessing certain categories or voices – it can be restrictive or even harmful, as is the case with the spread of disinformation on social media.
Our social connections are also largely determined by the culture we consume, so these labels can ultimately affect who we interact with.
The positives are clear – personalized recommendations from Netflix and Spotify help us find exactly what we like in an incomprehensible number of options. The question arises: who decides what labels, what to put in these boxes and, therefore, what we will ultimately watch, listen to and read?