Netflix is experimenting with different episode orders for ‘Love, Death & Robots’
You probably know that Netflix is big on data and personalization — it tailors the shows and movies recommended to each user, and even tests different images to promote those titles.
Now it’s extending that approach to the episode order of a new show, the animated science fiction series “Love, Death & Robots.”
Lukas Thoms, the founder of the LGBTQ nonprofit Out in Tech (and a product manager at Squarespace), pointed this out on Twitter. At first, he suggested that the episode order “changes based on whether Netflix thinks you’re gay or straight” — he noticed that on his account, the series started with an episode focused on a lesbian story line, while for a straight friend, it started with the episode “that has the most realistic and explicit hetero sex.”
We’ve never had a show like Love, Death & Robots before so we’re trying something completely new: presenting four different episode orders. The version you’re shown has nothing to do with gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity — info we don’t even have in the first place.
— Netflix US (@netflix) March 19, 2019
Turns out that’s not quite what was happening. Netflix tweeted back at Thoms that it’s “trying something completely new” by presenting four different episode orders to different viewers. However, it said, “The version you’re shown has nothing to do with gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity — info we don’t even have in the first place.”
Similarly, a company spokesperson told us, “We want to showcase the variety of shorts within the anthology series in different ways and see what works for our members.”
But is your episode order still based on your Netflix viewing history? Thoms said he talked to a friend at Netflix, who told him it was a “100% random A/B test.”
A final update: a friend I trust at Netflix looked into this, and apparently the episode ordering is just a 100% random A/B test that doesn’t involve any ML. Identity-based recommendations are still a good discussion to have, in this case it was just random!
— Lukas Thoms (@LukasThoms) March 19, 2019
So, just to recap: Netflix does not appear to be guessing at your sexual orientation, but it is experimenting with episode order as yet another thing to optimize, and another way it can collect data about viewer preferences.
Of course, this approach doesn’t make sense for serialized shows: If you jumbled up the order of “Russian Doll” or “The Umbrella Academy,” the story would become impossible to follow.
It could, conceivably, work for an anthology like “Love, Death & Robots,” where each episode stands alone — though even here, it feels like yet another step toward a streaming landscape that’s increasingly tailored to our personal preferences, and away from the idea that TV can provide a shared cultural experience.