June 18, 2011

The Professor is dead. Long live Netflix!


A few days ago, Netflix took another step in their determined plan to remove all user-generated content from their site. They nixed all avatars, profiles, and individual user review pages. Now all reviews show up in an anonymous format, consequently denying customers the ability to peruse all of the reviews written by any given member, and queue rentals from those pages. The links to commentary from Roger Ebert and other pros are gone altogether. It seems that corporate Netflix has decided to create a video-store approach to the way they do business, thinking that all most consumers need is box art and a blurb; if someone wants to read reviews from critics or other users, they can visit IMDb to do so. The reviews are still present in their generic form, but they’ll be gone before too much time passes. (If you have reviews, I’d begin the process of archiving them via a Word document.) The link to the Netflix Blog where this all is announced can be found here. The blog post certainly insults the intelligence, but there you have it.

Over the past few years Netflix has steadily shifted their focus from DVD to streaming, something that will continue into the future until at some point the streaming catalog becomes so robust that DVDs are discontinued (woe be to the USPS when that happens, they’ll probably drop Saturday delivery before much longer). This is going to happen eventually folks — DVDs simply won’t be viable forever. And along the way Netflix discovered something about the way their service is used that they couldn’t have imagined in the days before streaming: for many people $8.99 a month for unlimited streaming, especially considering the extraordinary amount of television that is available, is a much better option than $99.99 a month for cable. Besides, it makes a lot of sense for Netflix to get out of the mail order business as soon as they can profitably do so. They no longer reorder titles when their stock of discs are lost, damaged, or stolen — they simply apply the dreaded green “save” button to that title’s page. (That button used to have a purpose: one could “save” a title, and when Netflix restocked it would automatically be queued. Now it almost always means the title will never be available. These days when I see that button I know to go ahead and request such a film via interlibrary loan.)

I’ve paid very close attention to the way Netflix does business over the last ten years, and I’ve even gotten to know a few key employees. Here’s one thing I’ve learned: Netflix, in spite of some well-publicized blunders, is one of the most well-run companies in the world, and they make decisions with the goal of pleasing the largest segment of their customer base. Unfortunately for hardcore movie fans, that biggest of segments is not comprised of people who are interested in watching Children of Paradise. Instead, Netflix is thinking about the folks who want to stream an episode of Ice Road Truckers at the end of a hard day’s work — and there’s not a thing wrong with that. The dirty little secret that the executives at Netflix know through and through is that they don’t have to cater to the movie buffs — the people who write reviews and read pages of them before queueing a film — because pretty much no matter what happens we aren’t cancelling our Netflix memberships. For the time being, there’s just nowhere else you can rent a copy of Children of Paradise.

The Netflix website is constantly changing — many power users would say for the worst. Whenever a site feature has been removed or modified there’s an uproar from the heavy users that lasts a few weeks over at the Netflix Ning Community and in the comments section of Hacking Netflix posts. Meanwhile, the changes barely register with the broad customer base — or if noticed, they are usually met with approval. The most beloved of all these dead or dying aspects of the Netflix site were the community features: ratings, reviews, reviewer ranking, profile pages, similarity percentages, friends and fan lists, the ability to view a friend’s queue, those blasted notes, and so forth. All gone or on the way out soon. And while I’ll miss many of these things as much as the people ranting at Hacking Netflix, I recognize that things change quickly in life as on the Internet, and nothing as cool as the community features on Netflix could last forever. It’s also worth pointing out that Netflix is a spectacular success story. They stay far ahead of the curve and have made few, if any, poor business decisions. Whatever they want to do to their site is fine by me. The only part of this that really scares me is that Netflix seems unwilling to maintain their service in order to please multiple demographics, and I'm in the demographic that no longer appears relevant to them.

But I loved writing the reviews! And I certainly would never have turned to blogging if I hadn’t begun writing on Netflix. I’ve been a loyal customer for a very long time — a decade — almost the entire time Netflix has been in business. (Heck, I remember credits and cardboard mailers!) In that time I’ve contributed nearly 1,000 reviews to their site; and in so doing I’ve made many friends and received hundreds of valued film suggestions from them. I posted my email and blog address on my profile page and received a dozen letters a week and a ton of blog traffic from fellow movie fans — I love hearing “Hey, you’re The Professor!” It has been a blast, and I enjoy that people in the blogging community see my avatar and know me from Netflix. (Funny story: while I am a college professor, the name is only a coincidence — I got the nickname The Professor years before playing NTN trivia. Wednesday nights were “beat The Professor nights” at my local Buffalo Wild Wings. If anyone in the restaurant could beat me at trivia, they’d get a $50 gift certificate. If I won all the games each week I got a C-note. In two years I only lost twice, but the stress and all the free wings took years off my life!)

The Netflix experience was most enjoyable when all of the community features were going strong. Being a competitive lunatic, I was a sucker for the reviewer ranking. Since I had already written many reviews before the system was implemented, I debuted with a fairly high number: #44. In the years that followed my ranking got better and better, reaching a high point of #11. Looks like I’ll go out at #18. Considering that the ranking algorithm skewed for members who made lists of new release titles and soft-core porn, I was sort of proud of my high number because I never did such things. (I believe that three of the top ten members and eight of the top 25 were folks who had never written a review.) However, the reviewer ranking system brought out the worst in a lot of people, and that’s one of the reasons that seeing all this go away will be a relief. Admitting my personal attachment to my rank was, and is, a little stupid and embarrassing, but I never recruited a bunch of followers to “+1” all of my reviews in order to move up the list. Nor did I date my submissions so my cronies would know where they left off the previous week. I also never used the accounts feature to create four surrogate selves to “+5” my reviews either — but I sure know a lot of strange, lonely people who chose to do so. Some actually started web sites to coordinate their efforts! So if for no other reason I’m happy to see the reviews becoming completely anonymous so all of that nonsense will stop. The biggest problem with those folks was that they were mostly awful reviewers, and in many instances their reviews were the only ones visible for certain films. That was OK with me though, 27 Dresses never made it into my queue.

Here’s one thing I remember though: for me, and I’m sure for many of you, patronizing Netflix has been an enriching experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Netflix is without a doubt the single most valuable movie resource out there, and if it doesn’t make me appear too much like some capitalistic robot by showing gratitude to a profit-hungry corporation, I sure do offer Netflix my gratitude. And while they are removing the peripheral aspects of their web site that I enjoy using the most, I realize two things: Netflix is free to run their business how they see fit, and in the end it isn’t all about what I feel entitled to.

7 comments:

  1. I got the nickname The Professor years before playing NTN trivia. Wednesday nights were “beat The Professor nights” at my local Buffalo Wild Wings. If anyone in the restaurant could beat me at trivia, they’d get a $50 gift certificate. If I won all the games each week I got a C-note. In two years I only lost twice, but the stress and all the free wings took years off my life!)

    When people ask me why others sometimes refer to me as "Shemp," it's for a similar reason...my friends and I used to play NTN Trivia on Friday nights at the BW3 in Morgantown, WV because those were Movie Trivia nights and my NTN nickname was inspired by my favorite Stooge. I really miss those times, because I made some of best friends I've ever had just kicking back being competitive and scarfing down wings and pitchers of brew. Thanks for kick-starting that memory!

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  2. Nice job. This is a very well-rounded article that doesn't immediately jump on Netflix for the change. I don't post reviews on Netflix and think a lot of them aren't so good, but I still am disappointed in the move. While not as devastating as the removal of the Friends feature a few years back, it's still another disappointing step away from what made Netflix great in the first place.

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  3. How I'l miss Alan Ladd drenched in orange light. But in the the end you couldn't be further from the truth.. it's about the movies.

    Thanks for all the great reviews and I hope we'll still be able to see your reviews somewhere... On this site maybe?

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  4. @ Ivan: Yes, NTN trivia! I've been to the BW3s in Morgantown, and the quality of trivia players there far outstripped those we had in Winchester, Virginia. I don't think I'd have done nearly so well there — one would almost think WVU would be a better school by the quality of trivia players in M-town!

    @ Dan: Absolutely, and thanks. I always try to give Netflix the benefit of the doubt because I'm so grateful for the access to film they've given me — but all of the Friends and Community features will be missed.

    @ Ben: Excellent! Most people have to ask who the avatar is! Between here and my other blog, hopefully there will be lots more reviews to come. And that's what I said! It ISN'T all about what I want! :-)

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  5. I'm very disappointed and disturbed by what Netflix is doing. It's cynical and disrespectful of a business to create a space where users are encouraged to generate large amounts of free, high quality content--thus building the value of the business--and later dismantle it.

    Mark, your reviews were one of the things that have encouraged me to remain a Netflix customer. And in posting your semi-anonymous reviews to their site, rather than building up your own blog with affiliate links to Netflix and other sites, you gave up an enormous amount of potential income and online visibility.

    You might be okay with being an unwanted demographic, but I'm not. Now that I know Netflix doesn't care about how I use their service and doesn't value your terrific contributions, my affection for their brand has dipped accordingly. Boo!

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  6. Hey Kim, Thanks - I really appreciate that.

    I also appreciate everything you have to say there, it's all perfectly valid. I also really like your phrase "my affection for their brand has dipped accordingly," which is as good a way to put it as I've yet heard.

    Netflix has always justified their decision to remove site features by claiming only a miniscule amount of members actually used them. I've often wondered if that's true. But I am sure they do a lot of site testing on groups consisting wholly of people they consider to be their "target users" as opposed to mixed bag groups that would include movie buffs like us. Netflix's claim is that those people just don't read the reviews, and the effort put into making sure the features actually work has exceeded their usefulness — according to Netflix. So while you and I, and many many others enjoyed the reviews and found them valuable, Netflix clearly disagrees with us. Though as you say, I can't imagine that they wouldn't admit the reviews, lists, friends features, etc., didn't clearly build their brand in that way that is so conspicuous to high quality internet companies.

    In a way these changes seem like the kind that come when a company changes CEOs, but that isn't the case here. We can always hold out some hope that they will transfer all the friends stuff to Facebook, which for a time their CS reps were telling irate callers to get ready for. Reed Hastings is a new addition to the board of dierctors for Facebook, so we'll see.

    I'm pretty sure that all reviews will be gone before the year is out. I didn't put this in the post above, but I also would not be surprised if the individual movie pages themselves were to go away (!!!), with all information provided via the little pop-ups that happen when you hover over a film.

    If nothing else, it's great to get to see the web develop and evolve, and I'm fascinated by how companies such as Netflix, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and eBay keep evolving. The only one I can't understand is Twitter. :-)

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  7. I'm fairly new at netflix, but I did wonder what happened to the personal reviewers such as yourself. I always very much enjoyed your take on things and found you to be a class act up front kinda guy. Never knew about that cool avatar of yours, but found out it was alan ladd. so funny. thanks for this site professor. I plan on coming back often.

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