The magic behind Netflix use of Big Data may just be a human.
Of course, there is a big difference between using data in combination with intuition and relying entirely on an algorithm—the decision-making equivalent of Siri finding gas stations near you. I don’t think anyone—Netflix, Mitt Romney—makes big decisions that way. As Chris Kelly, the C.E.O. of Fandor, an indie-film Internet channel told me, “It just isn’t true that you can rely on data completely.” Even Google, the champion of algorithms, employs substantial human adjustments to make its search engines perform just right. (It cares so much about this that Google claims First Amendment protection for its tweaks.) I do not doubt that companies rely more on data every day, but the best human curators still maintain their supremacy.
Perhaps what we are seeing here is better explained by the rise of a different kind of talent. It is a form of curation (at which Sarandos excels) whose aim is guessing not simply what will attract viewers but what will attract fans—people who will get excited enough to spread the word. Data may help, but what may matter more is a sense of what appeals to the hearts of obsessive people, and who can deliver that. And what that suggests is that competition will remain possible for companies that aren’t Amazon or Netflix, without massive piles of data on hand. It might be enough to know just which cults to bet on.