It’s impossible to go a day on the internet without interacting with a robot.
Algorithms dominate the World Wide Web and advertisers are fond of using them to discern exactly what consumers are looking to buy. Few algorithms are as sophisticated, however, as streaming titan Netflix’s. Perhaps you may have noticed, but the thumbnail images for content on your Netflix account frequently differ from those on your friends and family’s. In fact, a thumbnail for a particular TV show on movie may change on your own account from day-to-day, seemingly depending on your mood.
That’s because Netflix, like all online enterprises, has a vested interest in giving you exactly what you want to see. As detailed in this helpful rundown, since 2015 Netflix has put its algorithm to work analyzing its users’ viewing habits and curating imagery that will appeal to them. It’s not like this is any grand secret either, by the way. Via the company’s technology blog in 2016, Netflix specialists detailed why catching a viewer’s attention within 90 seconds was of the utmost importance, writing:
How can we make it easy for our members to evaluate if a piece of content is of interest to them quickly? As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Neuroscientists have discovered that the human brain can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds, and that across the board, it takes much longer to process text compared to visual information. Will we be able to improve the experience by improving the images we display in the Netflix experience?
The upshot of it all is that every Netflix subscriber’s account features a constellation of images unique to them. After all, if there are near-infinite possible orders for a shuffled deck of 52 cards (technically 8.0658e67 which is close enough to “infinite”) then surely there are enough potential Netflix thumbnail combinations to cover Earth’s 8 billion people … or Netflix’s 240 million subscribers. Call that a cynical byproduct of capitalism if you want, but it’s also kind of weirdly beautiful?
Since there is actual money at stake in terms of Netflix’s bottom line, one could make the argument that the images the streamer chooses for you are as reliable an indicator of your personality as anything else. Certainly more than your horoscope at least.
With that in mind, some of us at Den of Geek got together to compare our thumbnails and see what they said about us. Below you can find the results for 12 series (including a combination of Netflix originals and library titles). In each entry, the top left thumbnail image belongs to U.S. TV Editor Alec Bojalad, top right is U.K. TV Editor Louisa Mellor, bottom left is Audience Development Specialist Maznah Shehzad, and bottom right is Head of Audience Development Elizabeth Donoghue.
Please enjoy our streaming horoscopes and chime in with some of your own in the comments.
Netflix’s algorithm seems to have wisely worked out that most of us have an interest in true crime and presented an image of Myha’la Herrold from the Black Mirror season 6 episode “Loch Henry.” Those familiar with this installment will know exactly what she’s gazing upon in horror.
It stands to reason that most thumbnail images associated with BoJack Horseman will feature the titular Horseman himself. What’s interesting are the secondary characters Netflix’s thumbnails include as well. The count here is two Princess Carolyns, one Todd, and one BoJack solo.
There are no shortages of iconic shots from Breaking Bad for Netflix’s algorithm to pull from. For the majority of us, however, it looks like Netflix believes we’ll respond most warmly to a bloodied and bandaged Walter White circa season 4.
Netflix wisely understands that most of us will find Queen Charlotte appealing, with or without a bombastic blue wig. Louisa’s account, however, requires a touch of Lady Edwina Sharma and some flowers.
Put aside for a moment whatever is happening with Maznah’s thumbnail, Derry Girls provides a unique insight into the differences between Netflix accounts in worldwide markets. Louisa’s U.K.-based account features a Channel 4 logo on its Derry Girls thumbnail, in addition to “Top 10” and “New Season” icons.
Half of our Heartstopper thumbnails feature both Nick Nelson (Kit Connor) and Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) while the other half features only the latter. Why? Only the algorithm knows.
For those old enough to remember, the thumbnails on Netflix’s homepage used to be made up entirely by posters and other promotional photos – not screengrabs. Here we can see how some of those older images still rattler around Netflix’s servers. Only Maznah gets what appears to be an actual screengrab while Alec and Elizabeth get promo images. Louisa gets George Costanza’s bald head but that’s neither here nor there.
Squid Game is a dark show, so naturally each one of these thumbnails feature blood and/or death. Alec and Maznah’s thumbnails fall closer to the “death” end of the spectrum with several pink-clad guards guiding coffins down a green hallway. Louisa’s features the Front Man holding a gun and the bloody playground set behind him. Elizabeth’s thumbnail, bless it, makes time for both blood and death.
Stranger Things wins the distinction of being the only series on this list to not have any repeat thumbnail images among the four accounts we sampled. That’s to be expected as this property is one of Netflix’s biggest hits and therefore has a lot of imagery to draw from. Alec and Maznah’s images are epic yet impersonable while Louisa and Elizabeth’s highlight specific moments from the most recent fourth season.
If you’re wondering how mid-2010s legal drama Suits suddenly became a smash hit on Netflix this summer, then these thumbnails probably aren’t going to provide much context. These are about as bland as Suits itself (sorry, Suits). If anything, this batch of thumbnails shows the limitations of Netflix’s attention-grabbing algorithm.
Three identical Henry Cavills and a dog monster: that seems like the proper ratio for Witcher thumbnails. The real question here, however, is what are The Witcher‘s thumbnail images going to look like in the Cavill-less season 4?
Naturally, the thumbnail images for Wednesday were always going to feature the show’s central character Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega). But what other face would Netflix choose to highlight? It turns out the algorithm anticipated we would want to see Catherine Zeta-Jones as Morticia Addams. Simply put: the algorithm was correct.