Most of the time, Netflix’s Twitter account is filled with teasers and trailers, announcements for upcoming titles, and even the occasional political tweet (such as their response to the FCC’s recent decision to gut net neutrality). It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from the streaming giant, i.e., attempts to keep us hooked and eagerly anticipating our next binge-watch, all served up with a little cheekiness.
But last week, Netflix got a little too cheeky when they appeared to call out mega-fans of A Christmas Prince, a Netflix-produced piece of holiday fluff starring Rose McIver (iZombie).
To the 53 people who've watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?— Netflix US (@netflix) #
While some rolled with Netflix’s tweet and saw it as nothing more than a bit of cheeky humor, a not insignificant number of responses expressed concern and even disgust.
Some questions for reporters to ask Netflix: —How many employees have access to people's viewing habits? —Are there any controls on how they can access this data/what it can be used for? —What's the punishment for creeping on people? —Why are they publicly shaming customers? https://t.co/bnouaaGnZC— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) #
My guess is that Netflix’s social media team really did just want to have a little fun with their original tweet. For all we know, they completely made up the “53” number. But any and all cheekiness aside, there is something disturbing about the tweet: it’s a reminder that Netflix knows an awful lot about our lives, something we tend to forget in the midst of watching yet another episode of Stranger Things.
Netflix isn’t alone in this, of course. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter… all of these online giants have amassed mind-boggling amounts of data about our likes, habits, wants, needs, and thoughts, and we’ve willingly given them much of that information so we can enjoy their services as cheaply as possible. But this arrangement raises a pretty obvious question: what are they doing with all of that information?
We like to think that Netflix et al. are, at the very least, 1) handling all of this information carefully and securely, 2) using it to make their services better, faster, and more relevant, and 3) not using it in ways that could negatively affect us. Recent years, however, have shown that the online giants don’t always have our best interests in mind. In fact, they’ll willingly overlook what seem like common sense approaches to handling our data in order to achieve other goals.
For examples, look no further than Facebook, where you freely post all manner of personal data, including selfies and photos of your kids, sensitive personal and family updates, and political opinions. This same social media juggernaut has come under scrutiny for how they use that information in light of situations like these:
- Running psychological studies to see how their service affects users’ emotions
- Claiming their algorithms can determine teens’ negative emotional states and target ads accordingly
- Determining users’ “ethnic affinity” based on their activities, friends, and interests in order to show them targeted content and promotions
- Admitting that their platform was used to influence people concerning the 2016 presidential election
We believe Facebook is a neutral platform that we can enjoy for free with little to no adverse effect. But time and again, we’re reminded that we’re essentially being sold as Facebook turns over our freely offered information to others who in turn try to influence and shape us — which can happen even without any obvious approval or acceptance on our part. You don’t have to be a cynic to find this arrangement insidious. Or as Michael K. Spencer puts it:
We trust Google and Facebook, with our deepest needs, our deepest fears, our most urgent emergencies for answers, human contact, socialization, support and all those things that make us human — and what do they do to us? They engineer our attention, optimize us, and exploit our personal data and privacy for profit.
Did we actually believe that they would make the world a better place? We have created a monster and called it a tool for globalization, when it’s one of the greatest concentrations of misused and misguided power on the web — that is directly opposed to values of decentralization, corporate social responsibility, and freedom of speech and privacy that young people believe in.
In light of Facebook’s controversies, Netflix’s tweet seems rather trivial. And yet, the notion that Netflix might dare to use, in such a frivolous manner, the information that they’ve gathered concerning our personal watching habits is disconcerting — especially if they did intend to poke fun in a way that could be considered shaming.
All that being said, it doesn’t seem too untoward to ask companies like Netflix that actively encourage compulsive behavior — just consider how many aspects of Netflix’s interface are specifically designed to get you to watch as much content as possible as quickly as possible — to take some responsibility for the behavior they encourage, and maybe even tell people to slow down from time to time.
This isn’t too dissimilar from breweries and vineyards putting labels on their products warning against drinking and driving or drinking while pregnant. Or, perhaps a better parallel would be state lottery commercials that tell people to gamble responsibly, and maybe even skip buying tickets now and then. (Nebraska’s state lottery has run commercials to that effect in the past.)
To be sure, breweries and lotteries are covering their butts just as much as they’re acting out of any sense of civic duty or social conscience (if not moreso). But I’m glad that alcohol producers and state lotteries have to be proactive with their warnings, so maybe Netflix should, as well (especially considering that some experts think binge-watching can lead to health issues).
So given the fact that Netflix does know a lot about us, and assuming that Netflix could use that information to discern viewing habits that might be unhealthy, what sort of warning would be reasonable to expect? At the very least, it ought to be private and personalized. In the case of the tweet, its public nature certainly did Netflix no favors. If the tweet had, instead, been by somebody who actually watched A Christmas Prince that much, and it was a screenshot of a Netflix email suggesting they take a break, I suspect there would’ve been a little less controversy.
But given Netflix’s laissez-faire attitude towards binge-watching — as evidenced by their 2015 April Fools Day promos as well as their “Binge Announcement” video — I doubt we’ll see any sort of binge alert any time soon. Remember, Netflix has a vested interest in you watching as much of their content, and especially their original content, as possible. And if recent years are any indication, we shouldn’t expect that to change. Netflix has grown increasingly clever at reducing friction and streamlining the binge process (e.g., you can now skip the opening credits for some series). Netflix certainly does some good things such as supporting filmmakers and they offer lots of really good and enjoyable content, but always remember: your personal well-being is not their primary concern.
I’m not calling for a boycott — at least, not until after I finish watching Dark — but we need to get over any notion we might have that Netflix, Facebook, et al., are neutral platforms, or platforms that care about us. This doesn’t mean they’re actively and intrinsically evil, but we do need to remind ourselves that neither are they content to just sit in the background and be passive. They are actively seeking after and using any and all information that they can get about us because that’s how they make money. And we’ve simply become too comfortable with that.
The more we realize this, and the more we’re willing to make changes in our lives to control how much information we give them (or even deny them information outright), the healthier our relationships with these services will become. And we won’t need a tweet to remind us to act responsibly and take care of ourselves.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.