Netflix and Long Tail Economics


Whenever I open Netflix or Amazon Prime, I notice a large amount of algorithm-fueled recommendations curated and tailored for me. Sometimes I find them helpful, but it makes me wonder: do I actually want all of those recommendations, and are they even necessary? According to the writer Chris Anderson (2004), in The Long Tail, these are part of Long Tail economics – a new age of digital entertainment that’s opened audiences to a greater variety of entertainment, and companies can now make money on more niche products rather than purely relying on hit movies, music, and books.


Making recommendations based on previously watched films benefits me because it exposes me to movies I might not otherwise see, and yes, the more I find, the more I like. But I wonder – how much of a movie do I have to watch for Netflix to generate the recommendation? What if I turn it off after 20 minutes? And the recommendations aren’t just on the streaming service. I get DVD’s I didn’t place in my queue. Has anyone else noticed this? Is Netflix ensuring my queue is never empty? And at what point will there be a need and option to do as Howard Rheingold (2014) asserts with Facebook – “…use…privacy settings to consciously control your boundaries to the degree…it allows” (p.233)?


(System Architectures for Personalization and Recommendation by Xavier Amatriain and Justin Basilico on TechBlog.)


Personally, I find there’s an overwhelming amount of entertainment material online. Just scrolling through my Netflix account and selecting a movie can be time consuming and frustrating. So while the digital world has virtually unlimited amounts of space for storing, selling or streaming media content, I still have a limited number of hours in the day to consume it. I understand that companies must compete for our time and attention, and to be successful, they must collect and analyze vast quantities of data about their clients. But their motivations may not be transparent. As the past few years have illustrated, protecting our privacy in online media use can be difficult to achieve, and is anything really private? And our collective culture is becoming more fragmented as we’re consuming media that purely fits within our niche interests. The drawback to this is that our cultural and daily connections may suffer.


While Long Tail economics revolutionizes how businesses do business, the effects on social media are less clear. In general, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram dominate the market while smaller companies struggle to find an audience. And in the way we use social media there may not be an audience for every story, as ones that are positive and arousing are far more likely to be shared or retweeted. For example, news stories designed to make a reader angry or inspired are far more likely to be shared on Facebook than neutral stories that evoke fewer emotional responses. With the political debates, has anyone else noticed more “us versus them” rants?


The sunny ideas explained by Chris Anderson about Long Tail economics are great in that they show that media is evolving, audiences have greater choices, and we are exposed to less mainstream movies, music, and stories. However, Long Tail economics fails to take into account the complexity of our digital media, which may be reflective of our previous patterns of media consumption. When TV was first invented, there were only a few channels, and frankly, I didn’t mind having just four. As we technology advanced and more channels were added, that meant more choice. At one point I had access to over 600 channels and the time it took to just scroll through the guide was ridiculous. Then I realized the law of diminishing returns for me was 84 channels. So as Steve Jobs observed – “focus is about saying no” (Rheingold, 2014, p. 246), I cancelled the rest. Now I surf less but on more options, and I benefit by the changes in which businesses like Netflix attract and keep customers. As a matter of fact, I intend to benefit from this strategy by re-watching House of Cards, Luther (one of the coolest detectives ever, oh and there’s that serial killer chick), and Sherlock on Netflix – right after I finish scrolling through my recommendations. That could take a while.

Posted on October 25, 2015, in Blogs, Social Media, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. While I do love all the options Netflix affords me, I agree with you that it can be overwhelming trying to find something to watch. Even with the recommendations sometimes I find that I sit and stare at Netflix or Hulu for at least twenty minutes before I finally decide on a movie. Sometimes this is worth it, but other times the choice is awful and I have to start the whole process over again which is extremely frustrating.

    Maybe I am indecisive and blowing the whole issue of being overwhelmed by choices out of proportion. Regardless, it demonstrates that while having too many options generally isn’t a bad thing, it certainly can be a hassle!

  2. Your question about how Netflix fills your queue/recommendations got me wondering.

    It’s algorithm based–no surprises there. It seems to push recommendations based on three factors: what’s available, your viewing history, and the ratings you’ve input. And, it looks at others with similar tastes to you and poof! recommendations.

    (Okay, that was four. They said three things, but it really is four. I split history and ratings.)

    This is exactly what Rheingold and Anderson are getting at. It’s not just about being given a discreet set of choices and told to choose. At the same time, I get what you are saying. What is the point of having 600 options. We can now drive, at least in part, the choices.

    Here is a link to their knowledge base that explains it:

    • True, but Netflix also has a cultural anthropologist on hand: although this piece is skeptical of his role:

      Netflix knows that we know that it knows more than we do about what we do in our private time, and it also knows just how unnerving that knowledge is. It’s familiar with much more than our favorite genres and actors. It can also account for everything from the color palette of covers we tend to click on to the rate at which we scroll through its suggestions. By proposing, if only implicitly, that it actually has to come into our homes to really get us, and that it does so through fussy old ethnographic methodologies, it makes its operation seem less all-seeing than it actually is. McCracken is just one man, and one man can see only so much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.