Thursday, December 14, 2017

Netflix controversy

With all the real problems of the world there is now the controversy over Netflix tweeting a facetious comment about 53 of its viewers who watched the same Christmas movie eighteen days in a row. Here’s the tweet that has some people up in arms:
Some say it’s creepy. Some are outraged that Netflix monitors their customers that closely. They feel it’s an invasion of privacy.

Here’s the thing:

OF COURSE NETFLIX KEEPS TRACK OF WHAT ITS CUSTOMERS WATCH.

This is a surprise to anyone? Do you not think Hulu does the same? Or Amazon? Or CBS All Access?

Of course they do. Unlike watching a program over the air, when you watch a streaming show you are linked directly to a server. And since you’ve provided profile data about yourself going in, they can monitor your viewing habits. You had to know that when signing up. The only thing they can’t determine is who besides the subscriber is watching. Is he alone or with six family members and how old are they? Netflix can tell if you turn off a show midway through but they can’t surmise if your family members walk out ten minutes in.

But it’s time we get real. Privacy? For the most part we’ve voluntarily surrendered our privacy. When you use discount cards at supermarkets they’re charting your buying habits. Spotify charts your music preferences. If you’ve been to porn sites there are now guys in the San Fernando Valley with greasy hair who still wear ‘70s leather jackets who know you prefer Asian women with purple hair who constantly need their pools cleaned. I was writing a script that required some wedding dress info so I went to one of those bridal store sites. I’m still getting Facebook ads for wedding dresses (and still haven’t found anything I like).

For fifty years TV producers and advertisers have been bitching that the rating services were horribly inaccurate. You can’t now bitch that they’re too accurate.

And how could anybody watch A CHRISTMAS PRINCE eighteen days in a row?

UPDATE:   Guys, guys!  The last line is a JOKE.  Yes, kids watch the same movie every day.  I must have seen Winnie the Pooh a thousand times.  But it's a joke.  A JOKE. 

You all have made some excellent points about privacy and use of the data.  One comment in particular, by reader Jerry Krull, is worth sharing with all.  Thanks, Jerry.  And now I've got to get that book.

Ken, I just finished reading "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhrigg. He tells the story of a guy who works at Target stores in the statistical data department. The group that sells products for pregnant mothers came to this guy and asked if he could use the collected data to predict which women were pregnant based on their buying habits - even if they did not register for a baby shower.

The guy pored through all the data of the women who in the past did register for having a baby and looked backwards at their (and their husband's) buying habits prior to the due date they gave on their registry. They found definitive items like an uptick in unscented lotion purchases. He was even able to figure what they bought based on how close they were to their due dates.

They used the data to send marketing materials to their customers (each time you use a credit card, customer loyalty, gift card at Target it is added to your personal customer record - for all time) who were showing the same buying habits as past pregnant customers.

An angry man came into a Target store complaining to the manager while clutching a Target ad mailed to his teenage daughter. "Why are you sending her an ad for all baby items. It's like you want her to get pregnant!" The manager said he would look into it and call back. When the manager called back a couple of days later to explain and apologize, the father apologized back. His wife and daughter had not told him the daughter was pregnant. Turns out Target did...

37 comments :

Jim said...

Just out of curiosity, I Googled the title of the movie and came up with this: We watched A Christmas Prince so you don’t have to.

https://www.avclub.com/we-watched-a-christmas-prince-so-you-don-t-have-to-1821226859

slgc said...

I agree that we have all voluntarily surrendered our privacy in order to enjoy these subscription services - that shouldn't shock anyone in the 21st Century.

But why would Netflix use that knowledge in order to mock its subscribers? That's a mean spirited thing to do to people who paid good money for this service. If some subscribers want to watch a crappy movie every day that Netflix makes it available, whose business is it?

Mitchell Hundred said...

I don't think the (implicit) breach of trust here is that online services collect data on the media consumption habits of their users. The issue is that they share those habits with other parties without the users' consent (or if you like, their explicit consent, because nobody reads user agreements). I'm reminded that Netflix collects data on my viewing habits every time they recommend something to me based on what I've watched before. But the difference between them and my public library, which does a similar thing, is that the privacy of patron data is a fundamental principle of librarianship. People don't like being reminded of the downside to incredibly convenient things like the Internet, because when they signed up for those things they were only thinking of the upside.

And unless the people complaining about this are all the exact same people who were complaining that TV ratings weren't specific enough (which I doubt), there's no hypocrisy here.

Jim Grey said...

Netflix's tweet's primary sin is that it is in poor taste.

John Hammes said...

Twenty - something years ago, our offices were introduced to some newfangled mean of communication, something called "e-mail", on green computer screens. We were always told to treat e-mail communications as though there were a third party present: even if somebody else was not really reading these communications in the moment, all could easily be read at any given time in the future. This advice has always been remembered, and easily applies - for better or for worse - to our more "sophisticated" technology today. Always expect that a third party can easily check in.

Now, "Santa Claus Conquers The Martians", THERE is a movie. Literally. It is a movie.

Ron Rettig said...

Ken, So do you think Disney will sell off the remnants of the original Fox lot for real estate development, or are the soundstages still in too much demand for Disney to cash in on the prime Westside location?

Raul said...


It's "A CHRISTMAS PRINCE" not "THE CHRISTMAS PRINCE".

Jerry Krull said...

Ken, I just finished reading "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhrigg. He tells the story of a guy who works at Target stores in the statistical data department. The group that sells products for pregnant mothers came to this guy and asked if he could use the collected data to predict which women were pregnant based on their buying habits - even if they did not register for a baby shower.

The guy pored through all the data of the women who in the past did register for having a baby and looked backwards at their (and their husband's) buying habits prior to the due date they gave on their registry. They found definitive items like an uptick in unscented lotion purchases. He was even able to figure what they bought based on how close they were to their due dates.

They used the data to send marketing materials to their customers (each time you use a credit card, customer loyalty, gift card at Target it is added to your personal customer record - for all time) who were showing the same buying habits as past pregnant customers.

An angry man came into a Target store complaining to the manager while clutching a Target ad mailed to his teenage daughter. "Why are you sending her an ad for all baby items. It's like you want her to get pregnant!" The manager said he would look into it and call back. When the manager called back a couple of days later to explain and apologize, the father apologized back. His wife and daughter had not told him the daughter was pregnant. Turns out Target did...

estiv said...

The problem isn't that Netflix is keeping track of what we're watching, although I imagine a lot of casual viewers may not have known it. The problem is the condescending tone of the tweet. Nobody likes to feel they're paying money for a service and are then sneered at for using it. It sounds like a really dumb movie, but for small children in particular watching a favorite movie every day for weeks is pretty normal behavior.

This sounds like a typical case of an inexperienced junior employee trying to have fun but getting the company in trouble, like that person at the Onion a few years ago who thought it would be funny to refer to a six-year-old actress using the C-word. This case isn't as bad as that one, but it's still obnoxious. Sorry, Ken, I usually agree with you, but this was rude.

Carl said...

Matt Lauer has a lot of time on his hands now.

Jeffrey Graebner said...

Ken probably wasn't looking for an actual answer to the closing question :), but a lot of kids today do watch the same movie over and over. This is especially common with kids that are on the autistic spectrum.

Brian said...


And how could anybody watch A CHRISTMAS PRINCE eighteen days in a row?

Well.......I like reading your Oscar review many times. This year listened to the podcast 3 times in a week. What's wrong with me?

Catherine said...


I second what Mr. Jeffrey Graebner said. Autistic kids also like to see some songs many times continuously, like on YouTube.

Guess Ken never knew about such Special kids.

Mike Schryver said...

There are a lot of creepy things and a lot of things to get outraged about, but this isn't one of them. As Ken pointed out, Netflix and other services do keep track of what you're watching, and that shouldn't be a surprise. As for the people being supposedly mocked or shamed, it was all anonymous. No one was named. No one was harmed.
People need to learn to take a joke.

slgc said...

I literally OMG'ed out loud at the story Jerry Krull related.


Has Netflix issued an apology yet? It's the least they can do.

William C Bonner said...

What's more interesting than what you watch is how you watch.

Netflix knows when you pause a show, when you rewind and rewatch a portion, and when you quit watching. Netflix knows when you take a bathroom break. What they don't know is exactly when the "Chill" happens since most people don't bother to pause their netflix when the screen is less interesting than other activities.

TiVo used to publish details of how people rewound and rewatched segments of the superbowl and its commercials. The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction would not have been a big deal if people couldn't pause and rewind it over and over.

Buttermilk Sky said...

One of the late-night guys -- Seth Meyers? -- was talking about how much TV Trump watches. He said Netflix checks in on you after three hours. ("Are you still watching this?") I don't even know if it's true, but maybe they're afraid a subscriber had a medical episode in front of the screen. In which case, do they alert first responders wherever you live? How far do these companies really go in tracking us? ("You paused 'Game of Thrones' for ten minutes. Did you go to the kitchen for a sandwich? Haven't you had enough calories today?")

Pamela Atherton said...

Ken... I have interviewed Charles Duhigg several times. Here's the interview about The Power Of Habit. (he also wrote Smarter, Faster, Better) The book is excellent! http://www.acloserlookradio.com/journalist-and-author-charles-duhigg-october-16th-2014.html

MikeN said...

Not just Netflix. With the boxes, cable companies know what you watch too.
If you care about privacy, watch with an antenna, and buy DVDs(with cash).
Your ISP will know your web surfing habits, though you can use proxy services to hide this. You could also try to pay Netflix and others with prepaid credit cards, though I don't know if it will work for subscription services.
This data is available for outsiders, and political campaigns use it to target voters, at least the sophisticated ones(Obama, Cruz).

Jerry Krull said...

To correct my mistake on the author's name it's Charles Duhigg (no r in his last name) who wrote "The Power of Habit". A really interesting read. The story I shared is in chapter 7 "How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do" The sub slug for the chapter is "When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits".

The author tells how when they applied the buying habits of pregnant women to their entire database of customers, it produced a list of hundreds of thousands of women who were likely pregnant.

The reason they try to get pregnant women to buy before they have a baby is to get them in the habit of buying from Target. Because once they have the baby (and any new parents know this) the parents have very little time to do anything, including shopping. So once they are in the habit of buying from Target, they will continue to shop there after the baby is born and buy all the other items like groceries, household, electronics, etc. while in Target so they don't have to go to other stores.

Peter said...

Oh look, Oprah is going to get the Cecil B DeMille award at the Golden Globes. Prepare yourselves for the most nauseating, self-congratulatory and long winded speech in awards history. Sick buckets at the ready.

Dustin said...

Hi Ken-

Funny enough, it isn't people in the San Fernando Valley that are tracking porn viewing habits. It's a family run company up in Canada that is keeping track of what people prefer, and the end result is not great for the producers in California. Jon Ronson did a great podcast about it that I highly recommend checking out.

http://www.jonronson.com/butterfly.html

Anonymous said...

Can I throw in a Friday question? In some respects, you're not the person to ask, but given your unique position as blogger extraordinaire casting your eyes upon the television/cultural scene. . .

Any thoughts on the Hallmark Christmas movie drinking game? I'm deeply concerned that there's going to be an alcoholism wave hitting the heartland that will make the opioid crisis seem mere child's play.

As always, thank you. Keith

E. Yarber said...

I briefly worked in the file room of Beverly Hills Mercedes-Benz when I first arrived in LA. There were co-workers who looked up all the celebrity customers. I expect they do the same at the county morgue. And don't buy a copy of Lolita from Amazon unless only you see the pop-up ads you'll get on every site you visit for months.

Two reasons struck me regarding the repeat business for that movie. Back in August, there was a minor scandal when a first-time author topped the NY Times Bestseller list by manipulating bulk sales. The listing was withdrawn. If you have a conspiratorial frame of mind, this Netflix business may have been a case of someone trying to create a similar impression of popularity for a dumb film by having a network play the thing daily, unaware than each individual doing so was being tracked.

I was also reminded of a visit I had with a woman who was dog-sitting for a friend. She left the Hallmark Channel running all day to pacify the mutt when it was left alone for hours. Perhaps there's something about A Christmas Prince which inhibits animals from peeing on the carpet.

Anonymous said...

Dear America,

Hate to break it to you, but many of the people whose jobs it is to tell you how wonderful their products are wouldn't be caught dead using them. Same is true when their product is a TV movie. They get their jobs because they can sell them. They say they luuuuvvve the product to get the job, and they are really good at pitching, but their eyes are on the next rung. Usually this job is the stepping stone.

In reality when they get together for expensed lunches with each other, they congratulate themselves on how cool they are for dissing the product they can push, how brilliant they are for figuring out how to sell it and marveling at how anyone in their right mind would be as unsophisticated as they are to go for such a thing. Certainly not them. At least in front of their peers.

That's right -- it's like high school!

Disclaimer -- this is not REALLY true of all of these people.

Case in point, the horrible James Aubrey, who had contempt for anyone stupid enough in his mind to watch Gilligan's Island or The Beverly Hillbillies, which made him millions when he was at CBS. But these people are everywhere today.

As for the internet knowing when we're sleeping and knowing when we are awake, why then would people buy those devices that they talk to in their houses that talk back to them and play music and tell them were East Anglia is? Aren't those things kind of creepy too? Get a clue, people. You've let the devil in the door a long time ago!

Sincerely yours,

Anonymous

John Nixon said...

20-some-odd years ago I lived in a house where we had a hand-held Radio Shack two-way radio channel scanner. After a quick search on the internet for frequencies we filled in all the available spaces with cordless phone frequencies and next thing you know we were listening to some of our neighbors' phone calls.
Any time you do anything on a device that transmits its signal into the air you can be intercepted and listened to. And even if it all takes place from end to end through a wire the same applies to all of your internet activity. Personally I kinda like being followed around by internet advertisements of stuff that I have considered or are considering buying. It helps me learn 'how white my shirts can be'. And frankly I really don't care if anyone knows what medicine I take, food I buy or people I communicate with. I'm just not that important or interesting that any of that information will ever matter to anyone.
As for the Netflix tweet, I don't think that those who are bothered by it can hold it against Netflix itself...it's just the work of some wise guy who works there.

YEKIMI said...

The Big Brother aspect of this is alarming. Here's what's scarier: I have a friend who works for a small-ish city [and I used to work for before they added their internet/cable capabilities] that runs it's own internet/cable/electric/trash/water departments. He told me that if you move into this city and call them to establish an account for any of the above they give YOUR info to the police department first to run to see if you have any warrants or prior criminal activity before they'll hook you up with their service. If you watch/google anything that may be borderline "fishy" [i.e.: possibly illegal] they let the police department know so they can keep tabs on you. I thought this was bullshit but after talking with other employees of the city , I found it to be true. Also talked to an officer who's a friend and he refused to say yes or no but he said if he lived in town he'd go with a private company like Spectrum or AT&T before he'd sign up for any cable/internet that the city runs. Now they are installing "smart" electric meters to keep track of how much electric people are using, ostensibly to manage their electric grid and usage. They've been told that if someone's electric usage jumps big time and stays up there to let the PD know because it could be a sign that they could be running a marijuana grow operation. I guess the way around that would be to only grow stuff from the day after Thanksgiving until New Years day because everyone's bill is going to jump because of Christmas Light displays. I'm sure by doing this they're probably violating state/federal laws, especially if they're using law enforcement databases to check on you. Talk about violating your 4th amendment rights! It's not that large a city so it's possible for them to do this. If it was a city like the NYC or Chicago I'm sure they'd be so inundated they'd never be able to keep up. There are private cable companies that serve this town so they could go with that option. But as far as water/electric/trash options, you're screwed and have to go with the city.

McAlvie said...

Hmmm. I'm wondering if the tweet was even intended to sound flip? I don't even know what the movie is about, so I don't know; but I do know from experience (not tweets; dear God, I will never tweet) how easy it is for tone to get misconstrued when a message is written with brevity as priority.

I won't even comment on repeat viewings. If that is someone's worst vice, more power to them.

But the privacy thing, yeah. Anything you do on the internet, folks, is monitored somewhere by somebody. If not for specific content, there is other data they mine. And the FCC just gave the internet providers, and more specifically his former and probably future employer Verizon, a huge Christmas present, so don't expect the current form of government to care about your privacy now that they'll be able to not very subtly guide you where they want you to go.

My advice - stop doing very little thing on-line. Do some brick and mortar shopping again. The best thing for the economy, according to people who actually know this stuff, is people getting out there and spending real money in the community, so you'll even be paying forward.

ADmin said...

Personally, I have NO ISSUE with Netflix knowing my viewing habits - particularly if it improves the selections I get. It's nice to know I get an actual vote in the ratings somewhere.

ODJennings said...

The credit card companies are even worse than Target. I've read that they can predict both bankruptcy and divorce with uncanny accuracy many months before either actually happens, divorce often before the couple involved starts treating it as a real possibility. Apparently there's a pattern to how a couple starts spending their money when the marriage is on the rocks, and it's not just large cash advances at strip clubs.

D. McEwan said...

"E. Yarber said...
don't buy a copy of Lolita from Amazon unless only you see the pop-up ads you'll get on every site you visit for months."


I have purchased both a DVD of the Kubrick movie of Lolita and a trade paperback of the novel Lolita from Amazon. I did not start getting pop-up ads on "every site I visit for months." Of course, I do have a pop-up blocker on my internet viewer, but since I bought nothing else ever that might be considered pedophilish, but have made lots of adult-male-gay-related purchases, I guess their algorithms could tell I was not in the Roy Moore club.

But after I bought a DVD of The Big Broadcast of 1938 from Amazon, for months they were pushing other Bob Hope movies at me. I loathe Bob Hope. I bought it for WC Fields, in spite of Bob Hope being in it. How do I tell their computers "No, no. I hate Hope. Sell me Fields"?

And then there was the time I bought a set of "Mae West Paper Dolls" as a gag birthday gift for a friend. For a year, Amazon was trying to sell me more paper dolls.

Edward said...

The NY Times published an article and interactive map with Netflix DVD rentals about 8 years ago. It ranked the Top 50 rentals by zip code for several cities. One snarky person commented that "Paul Blart" was probably rented the most by supporters of Sarah Palin, but the film was very popular in minority neighborhoods in NYC. "Milk" was not even in the Top 50 in many minority zip codes in NYC.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/01/10/nyregion/20100110-netflix-map.html

Charles H. Bryan said...

Is it possible that, since this movie is a Netflix production, that this is a weird marketing stunt?

I always prefer cynicism to paranoia.

DBA said...

Buttermilk Sky, I can't tell if you're joking or not but the "check in" in question is a prompt on the screen. You streaming their stuff still uses resources on their servers, so even though it's common for people to binge watch and thus intentionally leave it running for hours, if you, say, started with episode 1 of a series that would otherwise continue autoplaying for 12 hours straight, it prompts to make sure you're actually still there. That way, if you're not there to indicate you are there/awake it stops playing.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

If Netflix did that anywhere in Europe it could easily be fined by the data protection regulator. After next March, the regulators will be able to find up to 4% of global revenues. That should focus companies' minds. So many of these companies are in the charge of guys who just have no social sense. Uber is another good example.

wg

Pat Reeder said...

For years, I've written a topical radio comedy service and now material for Internet sites and private clients, with jokes tailored for everyone from a major conservative media figure to an iconoclastic, liberal cable host on Queer TV. I have to Google or look up on Amazon every subject that appears in the news, every celebrity under the sun (including all the info I look for on weird and obscure records for "Hollywood Hi-Fi"), and from sources spanning the political spectrum from HuffPo and The Guardian to Breitbart and National Review.

I like to think of the people whose job is to try to define my personality and interests feeding all my web surfing records into a big computer, which starts smoking, shaking and blows up in their faces.

Johnny Walker said...

Anyone who thinks this is shocking needs to wake up. We haven’t “surrendered our privacy” to anyone. We’re buying services from people. The idea this is anonymous because you’re doing it through a website is absurd. What do you is on the other side of that website? People!

Do you not think Blockbuster kept track of which films you rented from them? Did you think it was an “invasion of your privacy” when they contacted you to let you know that that VHS of “Back to the Future” was overdue...? Where you shocked and horrified that they had video rental charts, showing which films had been most rented over the past week? Those charts were tallied from all the things people rented, including you.

I agree with the others that the worst thing about this is the condescending tone of the Tweet. THAT’S horrible. Just as horrible as when the guy at Blockbuster said “why... just why?” when he saw I was renting Star Trek V (true story).