Netflix, please stop telling me what to watch

Netflix and I go way back -- to February 1999, when renting my first-ever DVD. I am a streaming customer now and increasingly dissatisfied. Netflix is the overly friendly store clerk -- the kind you never find in retail -- persistently making suggestions for stuff I wouldn't ever want. "Excuse me, because you bought toilet paper last time, lookee here! Beano gas-relief pills and Febreze air freshener are on sale this week". Yeah, right. Let me soak your hoity-toity head in the toidy bowl, bud.

Online retailers like Netflix (yeah, you too, Amazon) attempt to improve service by tracking what you consume and helpfully suggesting something like it. Last decade, analysts labeled the process "personalization". But they frequently invent or change labels to sell new services, and I don't rightly know what the thing is called now. I call it goddamn annoying and limiting. The more I watch, the less often compelling content comes my way.

'Because You Watched'

They all start the same way. "Because you watched..." Now, because my wife skimmed part of a "Jon & Kate Plus Eig8ht" episode, Netflix suggests we might also be interested in "Extreme Couponing", "Prison Wives", "Extreme Cheapskates" or "My 600-lb Life". Someone explain to me how "One Direction: Which Way is Up" fits on this suggested list. I remember a time when Netflix presented genres in the view queue. They're still there, when there is no personalization.

A recent service update permits up to five profiles. So last night I started with a clean slate and discovered lots of appealing content -- movies and television shows both. "Changing Lines" and "The Returned" -- I had previously searched for them, as examples. By assuming what I might want to watch (or my wife), based on what I have viewed limits discovery rather than enhances it.

I'm not alone thinking so. Before writing this post, I hoped over to Google+ and asked for comments. Trying not to be leading, I asked: "Do you find beneficial or annoying how Netflix curates content based on your view habits? For some people, that might be just right, giving them videos most suited to their tastes. For others, Netflix curation might prevent them from finding worthwhile content otherwise obscured".

"I find it awfully annoying honestly. It tends to think I like specific types of movies, which I don't", Kevin Timmons answers. "Because so much space is taken up with recommended shows, it actually makes it harder for me to know what is actually available on netflix, often times I actually stumble upon a show or movie I was interested in all along, purely by accident".

Jason Falter feels differently: "Netflix recommendations change often enough that I don't think it matters how they do it. I've found some interesting stuff via how they do it. Plus, if you happen to actually take the time to rate what you watch, you get even better selections".

I don't rate anything, but, ironically if he's right, to avoid even more useless suggestions.

"Netflix recommendations tend to be as irrelevant to me now as they were when they first started making them", Matt Ballard shares. "I can count on one hand the number of movies I've considered watching or actually watched from Netflix's 'because you watched' recommendations".

I can't count even that many. Zero is my number. Colleague Brian Fagioli calls the suggestions "noise". I hear that. Unfortunately.

Wait. What's that? The pesky store clerk is back in the room. "Because you purchased Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, I highly recommend pork rinds, beer nuts, and chocolate syrup".

Netflix Chat

After last night's miraculous experience being freed from "Because you watched", today I tried to turn off Netflix's suggestion controls. Of course, there are none visible, so I asked for assistance. Here is the conversation, with the rep's name removed.

Netflix: Hi there! [Netflix] here. How can I help you?

Joe: Hello, [Netflix]. Joe here.

Netflix: Nice to meet you, Joe!

Joe: :) I would like Netflix to stop making suggestions based on my viewing habits. If I set up a new profile, the pure suggestions lead me to find more interesting content. Suggestions made on behalf narrow things too much.

Neflix: Oh, I totally understand what you mean. I gave good ratings to Pixar movies once and now I get a lot of Kids movies in my suggestions.

Joe: So you understand. But can it be changed?

Netflix: Let me take a look into that. Right now we don't have the option to complete turn off features but we can find other options :)

Joe: Thanks,

Netflix: You're welcome! That's what I'm here for. [Time passes.] I'm still here with you, Joel :)

Joe: Whew!

Netflix: The best option we have here is to turn off the test participation option on your profile. We're constantly testing our features so some of the suggestions you see there we based it on what your see. Just Click Here to turn off this option.

Netflix: You can also clear the movies you've rated so we don't take that into account when making suggestions. Click Here and you'll be able to clear your ratings.

Joe: So turning that off will remove the curated "because you watched this..." I haven't rated any movies.

Netflix: Oh, no problem. It won't completely turn off the "because you watched this" but don't worry I can definitely pass this on as feedback.

Joe: What do I give up by turning off "test participation?"

Netflix: Only minor features. For example, right now some customers can't rate movies at all.

Joe: Really? Well, I won't miss that. Is there limit to how many profiles I can create and delete? Because that's another option.

Netflix: That's a really good option. You can have up to 5 profiles and we don't have a limit to how many times you delete them.

Joe: I will try that then. Please pass along my feedback about finding the suggestions to reduce the number of meaningful selections presented.

Netflix: Great! I have already left a note here in my system to let our IT team know that our customers want a change in the way we present suggestions.

Joe: Like no suggestions whatsoever.

Netflix: Got it. I've got your back on this, Joel :) Any other great idea that you may have for our website?

Joe: I'm good, and I really appreciate your time.

Netflix: It was my pleasure. I also appreciate your time, this definitely helps us provide an even better service so thank you. Oh, and one more thing, if you wouldn’t mind, please stay online for a one question survey.

Limited Options

My solution (for now) will be using dummy profiles to get broad-based meaningful suggestions. My main interest is "What's new?" Not "What's like what I watch?"

Chris Harpner finds profiles to be "useful", but "only on the devices in my home that have the profile UI for Netflix". Roku 2 doesn't support multiple profiles, unlike the "3" model. On Roku 2, "all of our family members watch from that profile, so the suggestions are useless to me because the viewing history is corrupted with a mish-mash of multiple people". Separate profiles on the other device solves that problem.

Problem solved for Harpner maybe, but even when I use a single profile Netflix leads me to useless suggestions -- typecasts my TV viewing. The service sends in that annoying retail clerk -- oh damn, he's back. "Mr. Joe, because you sometimes buy carrot cake, might I suggest some potatoes and gravy to go with that?"

Photo Credit: Joe Wilcox

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