How Netflix’s new rating system plans to make accounts more personal

Posted at 6:02 PM, Mar 17, 2017

The Netflix logo is reflected in the eye of a woman on September 19, 2014 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

From five stars to a single thumb

Netflix is swapping its five-star rating system to a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down model, a plan executives claim will make it easier for viewers to find the movies and shows they want to watch.

The old system — which allowed users to give movies and shows they enjoyed a relatively nuanced rating — will be phased out in April, Netflix Vice President of Product Todd Yellin announced Thursday.

Netflix has been experimenting with the thumb system for months. Last year, the company switched some subscribers to the new system as a beta test and found that the thumb model increased user reviews by about 200 percent. That might be because there’s no middle ground, like the two- to four-star ratings.

Even though the new system has fewer options, Yellin said, it will better represent how people really feel about what they’re watching. The thumbs-up, thumbs-down model implies that a user is being asked for their opinion. On the other hand, the star-system is seen as more merit-based, Yellin said, and many users often gave critically acclaimed content high praise.

“What’s more powerful: You telling me you would give five stars to the documentary about unrest in the Ukraine; that you’d give three stars to the latest Adam Sandler movie; or that you’d watch the Adam Sandler movie 10 times more frequently?” Yellin asked. “What you do versus what you say you like are different things.”

Netflix will also introduce a percent match system along with the ratings model switch up. An algorithm would predict the likelihood that a user will enjoy a movie or show, from 0 to 100 percent, based on what they liked and watched before. If the match is less than 50 percent, a percentage won’t be displayed.

Making trolling less appealing

News of the ratings switch came just a day after comedian Amy Schumer claimed trolls flooded her new Netflix standup special with one-star ratings. Schumer, citing an article on Splitsider, a comedy blog, claimed her haters organized on Reddit, and insinuated that misogynists sought to bring down her ratings. The new system may make it harder — or just less appealing — for haters to inundate content like her comedy special with negative reviews.

“I want to thank them,” Schumer said. “It makes me feel so powerful and dangerous and brave.”

Some people have insisted that the streaming company decided to ditch the rating system because of the alleged single-star harassment. (Most notable: Former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who resigned from the media company when a video of him defending pederasty surfaced online, suggested on his blog that the two events might be correlated. He has also bashed Schumer before.)

However, that’s highly unlikely — if not impossible — because Netflix has been eyeing a ratings change-up for more than a year, and because Schumer’s The Leather Special was only released on March 6.

Under the new system, the only thumbs-up or thumbs-down a user sees will be the one they give a movie or show. So even if thousands of trolls give a piece of content a negative review, other users won’t see that, which might deter them.

A ‘Netflix’ bubble?

The new thumbs-up, thumbs-down model and percentage match system are designed to make a Netflix user’s account more personal by showing them content they’re more likely to enjoy — but not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.

Some argue that the algorithm could keep users in a “social bubble” by feeding them content they are expected to enjoy. That echo-chamber leaves little room to discover new movies, TV shows, or genres.

The “social bubble” problem is mostly talked about in political circles. Facebook’s algorithm came under fire during the 2016 presidential election after critics claimed that the social media site’s highly personalized newsfeeds essentially blocked opinions different from a user’s own. Articles from conservative sites wouldn’t appear on a liberal’s feed and vice versa, essentially allowing users to live in a bubble where their own beliefs were constantly fed back to them.

The ramifications are a little less serious for an entertainment company — the future of the government isn’t on the line, for one — but the fear is the same. Too much personalization is said to limit outside opinions, and subsequently individual growth.

Netflix’s model was once considered a possible solution to Facebook’s bubble troubles, since the streaming service relates titles based on topic — meaning totally different movies and shows could be lumped together if they had one thing in common (say, Star Trek and Spaceballs, for example). Critics fear the new system might make a Netflix user’s world a little smaller.