Algorithmic Dysphoria: When the recommendations are wrong

Netflix recommendations don't always live up to what people expect The Algorithm to serve them.

Tuca & Bertie on Netflix — clearly surreal.

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The Streaming Wars are the sequel to the Content Wars in the Media Cinematic Universe. On the one hand, it means various platforms like Hulu / Amazon / Netflix competing over the biggest licensing deals for shows like The Office or Friends. On the other, it means that the flood of funding also makes its way to smaller, weirder projects to fill out the platform and maybe capture a few more subscribers.

Such a project was Lisa Hanawalt’s Tuca & Bertie, on Netflix, which wasn’t picked up for a second season. Hanawalt is the cartoonist behind the similarly anthropomorphic Bojack Horseman, an unconventional hit for sure, but Tuca & Bertie was on another level — more abstract, less linear, more frenetic, less familiar as a narrative about female friendship and families of choice (instead of darkness-haunted male protagonist). I watched it over the course of a few days and liked it but couldn’t shake the feeling that it was an acquired taste — were there enough people in Netflixland to make it worth producing the show? 

It’s the same feeling that I get from Neo Yokio, the one-season (so far) Netflix anime from Ezra Koenig and Jaden Smith, which I think is unbelievable genius — a kind of F. Scott Fitzgerald satirical cartoon of post-apocalyptic New York and Instagram-y image obsession. (Who greenlit this???) Also a show like Terrace House, at least the English translation. Sure, I’m obsessed with it, but how many viewers could a quiet reality show about Japanese people being (mostly) polite to each other get? (And if Terrace House was all you wanted, you could just pirate it specifically, but that’s another story.)

When Tuca & Bertie didn’t get renewed, I saw some people on Twitter blaming the fact that they had no idea it existed — otherwise they would have watched it. “I have watched every season of 'Bojack Horseman,' and yet I can't remember ever being shown a banner or thumbnail for 'Tuca & Bertie' on my Netflix homepage. I had to seek it out,” Dana Schwartz tweeted. Michael Idov gets Adam Sandler recommendations instead of quirky cartoons.

What my Netflix homepage looks like: a lot of promotion, not so much recommendation.

The Netflix homepage is like the Facebook feed or Google search results — things that are surfaced more or better get a flood of traffic, while the pieces of content off in virtual corners of the platform only get a trickle. At some level this is a corporate decision. Streaming service executives decide what to promote most heavily, which probably aligns with what they invest the most money in. But it’s also easy to blame “The Algorithm” for not showing you what you’re interested in. I watched Bojack, too, not to mention Hilda, a Netflix cartoon for children / tweens, but I didn’t get Tuca ads served to me until I already started watching it. 

After all, that’s the promise of The Algorithm, right? You give it your data so that it can crunch the numbers, slot you into a generic user profile, and more easily deliver you exactly what you’re looking for, whether it’s Millennial Romantic Comedies or Documentaries About Street Food With Lots of B-Roll. My demographic of Online Journalists want to see Tuca & Bertie, and support someone like Lisa Hanawalt, so why didn’t the platform automatically help us in doing so? 

Sometimes there’s an algorithmic mismatch: your recommendations don’t line up with your actual desires or they match them too late for you to participate in the Cultural Moment. It induces a dysphoria or a feeling of misunderstanding—you don’t see yourself in the mirror that Netflix shows you. 

One idea at play here is the sense that the platform is actively delivering you mostly what it thinks you want based on ~data~, versus just what the executives have decided to highlight. (In my own Netflix experience, I don’t think that’s really true.) On large content platforms, you want to think you’re being tailored to even when it’s not the case. It’s a kind of Mechanical Turk situation: a human is ultimately feeding you the recommendation behind the image of a robot. 

Another idea is that we do identify to a degree with what The Algorithm serves us. Sometimes what we get recommended (seemingly automatically) affirms our own tastes — the robot gives us this because we’re cool enough to merit it, as in the case of Tuca & Bertie. Or it even sees through the projection of our tastes. The new Twitter web interface feels even more algorithmic than it used to be; one journalist got fed Friday’s Chance the Rapper content even though that’s not what he would have admitted to wanting.

On YouTube, I watch a lot of City Pop videos, in part because it’s the easiest way to consume the relatively obscure Japanese genre. The top comment on the Haruomi Hosono album above is, ”i feel bad for all the youtube users that dont have old Japanese jazz and city-pop in their algorithm.” In that sentence there’s the sentiment that everyone has “their” individual algorithm, a disembodied curator picking stuff for them, and the assumption of cultural literacy based on what it chooses. “I get served City Pop stuff because I’m enlightened / curious enough to want it.” As if The Algorithm is a wiser older brother judging us ready to start listening to… the Grateful Dead? John Coltrane? I don’t know, I never had one.

There is so much content on streaming / content platforms and so much more all the time that the services have the burden of delivering it to us in such a way that we don’t feel overwhelmed by it. There were a million channels on cable TV, but they were each only playing one thing at a time. Thus The Algorithm is completely necessary to navigating it all. It acts as a filter so we’re not totally blindly groping in the pile.  

Often we have to turn to other sources to get a good enough guide, however. Journalists, critics, and human curators are still good at telling us what we like, and have less incentive to follow the finances of the company delivering the content to us.

A streaming show that has already been dead for months, the Uncanny Valley of content.

When I had a few sick days recently, I ended up watching this Netflix show Friends from College, which I found by googling “What to watch on Netflix” or something. It was a totally banal ensemble comedy about 30somethings in dramatic relationships starring Kegan-Michael Key—in other words something that should have been pushed on me. After I made it through two seasons, I found out that the show had already been cancelled months ago and there would be no season three, presumably because not enough people had watched it. Every day there are new tweets with disappointed viewers who realize they’ve embarked on a story that won’t end.  

I’m not sure who to blame, but I’m also not too worried — Netflix will try something similar again soon, and maybe next time it’ll stick around.