In her article “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood”, Alexis Madrigal explores the categories that divide the genres and sub genres of movies and TV shows on Netflix, how the company structured what amasses up to over 76,000 “micro tags” as they call it. These tags that were built through an algorithm, where professionally trained (with a 36-page packet on how to watch and rate movies) movie-watchers tagged each movies using the commonly repeated adjectives and the program divided those adjectives in a systemized order, of date of the production, name of the producers, actors, targeted audience, and many more specific sub genres.
So confronting this unprecedented, jarring number of tags that categorize the movies and TV shows we see (or will see) on Netflix, we naturally ask ourselves questions: what was the reason behind Netflix creating such system? how does this system affect the users’ viewing experiences on Netflix? and furthermore, how does this innovation reflect on the present and future of our cultures and societies?
When Todd Yellin, the Vice President of Product Innovation at Netflix, came up with this tagging system, he had one goal in mind: “Tear apart content!” The team then tentatively named the system the “Netflix Quantum Theory” and created a guideline that “spelled out ways of tagging movie endings”, such as the “social acceptability” of lead character. They also created a rating system for each genre, from the scale of 1 to 5. The tagging and rating system continues to much deeper, much more specific level, into the happiness-to-sadness-ending, the plot, lead character’s jobs, movie locations, and everything we can compare and categorize about movies. Once the base of this tag pyramid system was built, their team of engineers created a syntax for the genres based on these microtags to create the alt genres, combining the human-built system of hand-tagging objects with a machine-based program to categorize them.
Netflix’s microtag system shows us the process of not only categorizing the objects around us but also going much deeper into the specifics of it, getting as close as it can to relate to the human’s brain process of explaining and dividing things, and beyond that, building an algorithm based on it to understand us better, which fundamentally changes the way we communicate, interact, sell, and purchase objects in the society.
Ever since the industrial revolution when products were produced in mass quantity, businesses have been developing systems to understand the market’s behaviors and thought processes in order to make products that sells, and create marketing tactics that affects the customers’ decision to choose among myriad products. As much as it was an unprecedented event to categorize movies based on tags, and sub tags, diving and sub diving, to the level of microtags, we can understand that the combination of the categorizing system we have been using to archive data from the ancient times with today’s technology of automatically systemizing the data gives us an access to understanding, and better, predicting human behaviors. We are living in intriguing times, to be able to witness the development of the mix of humanities and digitalization to understand how we ourselves work, to change the way we live based on the system that we have developed ourselves, and to open more doors to the future.