The Netflix Effect?
Big Tech are now the most powerful publishers of our time, and Netflix should be viewed with the same skepticism as Facebook and Google.
By Nadine Sayegh, MA Media and the Middle East (2015-16), Centre for Global Media and Communication
With the giant firm Netflix making an informal call for content in the Arab world and wider region, it is an opportune moment to address the social, cultural and political impact this platform has had in the recent years since its launch. Critical to responding to these calls for new ‘ideas’ we must keep the concept of representation firm in hand when considering the social and cultural effect the platform has had. In recent years, the term Netflix Effect has come to refer to a number of things: the way in which the content is curated, the content itself and its social and economic impact, new representational practices and the recommendations of its associated algorithms.
Essentially, these arguments combined bring into question who the ‘agenda-setters’ are today. As individuals find themselves more aware of the inherent bias in news content, they become conscious curators of news – Netflix, however, presents itself as inherently unbiased- a platform to stream a huge variety of content, where the only bias is the one you put forth in your selection.
Netflix has become a major disruptor in the way content is consumed, it has affected the economy as an entity and in the productions it airs, and may subtly direct the world’s collective consciousness to issues that may not exactly be relevant or information represented accurately. This is the crux of the agenda-setting theory in media and communication studies.
In the Arab World, Netflix has both produced and curated some interesting content, certainly diverse but in some cases in the Arab world, what the company attributes as a success, the country itself often reacts violently to. For example, the series Jinn, filmed in Jordan, which is often talked as a ‘fan favourite’ caused an outcry in Jordan. Calls to ban the series were made by several different bodies, and different elements in the society felt the show did not represent the country or their values in any way, though the series was filmed in Jordan. Furthermore, the series was directed by a Lebanese national, pointing to nuances of ‘national’ culture that can be severely missed, even with such close neighborly communities. As the call for local content was launched, Netflix also signed a deal with Saudi Telfaz11 (production company) for eight films to be released in 2021.
As this is essentially a global platform, saturating it with content from certain companies/countries de-facto acting as community representatives can be harmful to questions of stereotyping, representations and framing. The Arab world and wider region have social and cultural nuances that deserve to be shown on screen and to be accurately represented, but what is their access route to the online giant? This is not to say this was necessarily done with intent, malicious or otherwise, just that it is having intended and unintended consequences.
A simpler example to highlight how influential Netflix productions and curations are having on the world is the recently released, Queen’s Gambit. Focused on a female protagonist, who goes on to become a chess master, the production has boosted search queries and orders on chess sets to incredible degrees, even registration to chess competitions saw dramatic increases. Another example is how the completely bizarre story of ‘Tiger King’ ended up a global phenomenon. The seven-part docuseries, placing itself as a real-crime mystery/documentary, where the main topic of discussion was ‘Joe Exotic’ owner of a big-cat zoo. While the show engulfed the viewer enough to binge-watch the whole series – the topic of animal abuse soon after took over popular discussions, particularly regarding big cats. While it was centered in the US this essentially was the fifth most-viewed series on the platform – ever. More dangerously, a teen-drama series, 13 Reasons Why, centered on the aftermath of a high-school student’s suicide, led to an increase in suicide rates in that age group and Netflix was pushed to raise a mental health awareness campaign.
The Social Dilemma was another production with outsized impact: this is a documentary about how we use social media, or rather, how it seems social media is starting to use us. Focusing on several aspects of social media use, several articles expressed concerns over social media. “The film argues that social media is highly addictive, manipulatively designed on the basis of an ‘attention extraction model’ to control our behavior, keep us scrolling and wanting more,” one such article noted. The loop of personalization online was heavily discussed in the widely watched documentary, ironically, aired on a platform built on a similar system. According to Netflix, 80% of watched content comes from recommendations. In an age where brands across all industries are trying to predict what customers want next and create personalized recommendations, Netflix is setting the bar,” as written in yet another article discussing the impact of the platform.
While the platform itself has come to be recognized as heavily impactful, we must now pay closer attention to the content of Netflix productions and be conscious of the bias of individual and collective identities. Our selection on the platform ultimately narrows our future choices, and highly promoted and viewed content gains more traction but we cannot let this model dictate our current concerns because other media have oversaturated or have become redundant. Implicit bias is inherent in anything created or viewed by an individual therefore indicating that an agenda is being presented for consumption as well, it just comes in a friendlier form.
This article was originally published by TRT World on December 8, 2020.