How Netflix film categories are like BuzzFeed headlines for movies

January 3

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Netflix is notoriously good at chopping up the films and TV shows in its online library into micro-categories that cater to viewers' every niche interest. In a brilliant deep dive on the practice, Alexis Madrigal has unpacked exactly how those categories came to be.

The post comes along with a neat and incredibly sophisticated Netflix category generator that Alexis and his team whipped up themselves. It's based loosely on the same techniques that Netflix uses to come up with its own labels, and in fact it uses some of the same descriptors. But it's bound by none of the limitations that Netflix imposes upon itself when recommending new films to people. The generator comes up with ridiculous names like "Romantic Urban Legend Documentaries Based on Bestsellers Set in Latin America From the 1980s For Ages 8 to 12 With a Strong Female Lead" and "Southeast Asian Post-Apocalyptic Girl Power Westerns Based on Classic Literature From the 1990s."

Dialing it back some, the generator also provides more plausible — though still fictional — Netflix categories, such as "Road Trip Courtroom Movies For Hopeless Romantics" and "Prison Slapstick Satires." (The real Netflix, Madrigal writes, employs no more than five descriptors in any category, as a general rule.)

I was on my seventh or eighth category before I realized something interesting. Stick a number in front of the category title and you wind up with a BuzzFeed headline. Try it: 4 Talking-Animal Spiritual Slashers From the 1940s. 15 Rogue-Cop Thrillers About Fame. 101 Disney Sexual-Awakening Animations From the 1960s.

Netflix's actual categories are far more tame. But as Madrigal points out, the craziest ones the generator comes up with ("Gonzo") are essentially begging to be made and shared.

The second you read one, don't you just want that movie to exist? Can't you just imagine it? All that to say, Gonzo, for me, is films that should exist but won't. Or at least pitches that should exist and might soon.

This exercise may actually reveal less about Netflix than it does about BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is the king of viral headlines (perhaps second only to Upworthy), so it's only natural that its signature way of promoting things might spread to other content peddlers. More interesting, though, is what specificity does. The more specific a headline or category tag, the more likely it is you'll find exactly the sort of person who's interested in it — and roping them in like that is a surefire way of getting them to come back.

It also suggests that the use of data almost automatically drives us toward BuzzFeed-style headlines as companies try to micro-target customers as specifically as they can, packing more and more descriptors into their attempts to reach just the right audience at the right time. Netflix prevents this only because of its artificial cap on the number of descriptors it's allowed to use. But in a world unshackled by rules, it's easy to see how we wind up at "Space-Travel Tearjerkers Set in Biblical Times From the 1920s About Couples."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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