Opt-in: Big Data Done Right?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but the concept of “big data” and all of the information I generate on a daily basis makes me a bit uncomfortable. That someone could mine this data to predict my future behavior or publicize my past behavior conjures images of a world I don’t want to live in.

Ever since Edward Snowden’s NSA spying revelations I swear I have heard tales of 100 different spying schemes. The differences between big government and big corporations are not clear in this regard. The details are always classified, anonymously reported or otherwise vague and tricky to properly analyze. Which is why I opt-out of everything, use fake information where possible and generally try not to leave too many digital footprints.

I have noticed that many of us who try to be “data concious” still have our blind spots. I happily let Google track my whereabouts to make predictions about traffic in places I might go. I pour my soul into Pandora in an attempt to uncover some new musical gems. And last but not least, I rate things on Netflix like there is no tomorrow. It is somehow satisfying to imagine adding IQ points to Netflix with each rating. Nobody wants to waste time trying to figure out what to watch, right?

As it turns out, Netflix is using those ratings for something more elaborate. Salon.com recently ran a piece about Netflix making use of its “big data capabilities.” One intriguing nugget really stands out. From the article:

For at least a year, Netflix has been explicit about its plans to exploit its Big Data capabilities to influence its programming choices. “House of Cards” is one of the first major test cases of this Big Data-driven creative strategy. For almost a year, Netflix executives have told us that their detailed knowledge of Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched their decision to license a remake of the popular and critically well regarded 1990 BBC miniseries.

Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. Therefore, concluded Netflix executives, a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons.

Even if this type of thing makes you uneasy, it’s still kind of cool, right? Netflix broke down our viewing habits into something modular, and then used it to rebuild (or remake) a show with the utmost confidence that we would enjoy it. If I had never watched House of Cards, this article would have me predicting it to be a contrived failure — a pseudo-artistic attempt at making some cash. But I have watched it, and the show is truly well written, acted and shot.

Critics and viewers have seemed to agree — the show is good. Considering the resounding success we must assume this will not be Netflix’s last Frankenstein. Get your popcorn ready. Although data collection remains a serious issue with major consequences and implications for society, I can’t deny that this is one fascinating side effect.

* Cool Kevin Spacey image linked from Salon.com

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