Netflix is watching you. We're all watching you

The video streaming giant calling out its users on Twitter is creepy. But it's only the beginning of monetizing viewing data for media content services.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Over the weekend, people got a bit freaked out when Netflix sent out a cheeky tweet, indicating that it was tracking views of its original movie, The Christmas Prince.

Netflix, in essence, has admitted it is analyzing viewership metadata the same way that popular news and editorial websites (yes, like ZDNet, which is owned by CBS) looks at page views in order to determine the type of articles that make the most money and which advertisers are best suited to particular content domains.

This is how the industry of New Media focuses overall coverage and determines appropriate search engine optimization for headlines. Yes, I'm talking about clickbait.

To this, I say: Why are you surprised Netflix is now doing this, too? In fact, I knew this was coming, years ago.


(Source: Twitter)

In November 2014, during the Aereo/CBS battle that was heading for the Supreme Court -- which Aereo then lost -- I talked about what the future of television might look like should the networks decide that streaming, rather than broadcast, would be its best distribution medium and outlet for overall monetization.

While it sounded ominous at the time, this prediction is starting to look more and more like reality.

Sophisticated analysis and big data decision-making tools will guide the networks in how to target advertising to who is viewing that streamed content, providing more of a precision-guided munition to the eyeballs than the shotgun blast that they have today.

For the advertisers, that's way better than the tools they have now. Today, all they have is time slots, ratings, and audience popularity based on Neilsen and perhaps DVR data, as well as local demographics.

All of that is legacy technology and vestigial old-school business when over-the-air is gone. Depending on the viewer, who will be profiled based on their social network footprint and historical viewing data supplied by all of their content providers (presumably through business partnerships), they will receive customized TV ads dynamically inserted into their streams. And they will be told what other programs to watch.

If the activities of the NSA snooping on your emails and phone call history creep you out, just think about what the networks are going to do with the information that details what you like and do not like to watch, what parts of it you liked or disliked, all of your favorite things on Facebook, what you've been saying on Twitter, what websites you look at, what products you've been buying, what books you read, and what games and music you play on your devices.

Netflix hasn't actually used this sort of information to target advertising, but it's definitely using this data to determine the future of its programming. In fact, it has been doing this for years.

Read also: Apple to iPhone, Mac users: Here's why our data gathering doesn't invade your privacy | Connected cars: What happens to your data after you leave your rental car behind? | What does Google know about you? Its new privacy dashboard should reveal all

The company is only admitting to doing things that its peers in the industry are also engaged in but are not so openly admitting to: The monetization of customer data.

Amazon, Hulu, HBO, and, yes, the streaming services for basic cable channels and network television companies -- such CBS All Access -- all are engaged in this practice to some extent and mine their data for different reasons and to different ends.

Each of these companies uses their own viewership data to decide which programs to produce or to license. And their advertisers want this data to focus their product placement efforts on their best demographic targets.

How deep they are going into analyzing their own data is unknown. Netflix has admitted to looking at aggregate views by a total number of repeat viewers over a certain time period, which, frankly, is fairly innocuous. It allows them to highlight specific types of content in their UX based on various trends.

More complex analytics that pinpoints the identity of specific users and targets those users specifically with promoted content and advertising -- outside of generic demographic targeting -- is not yet something the company has admitted to.

Frankly, I'm not really concerned with what these companies do internally with their own data in order to figure out what original and licensed programming to spend money on, or what to provide to advertisers.

My concern is what they decide to do with it among themselves --- specifically, correlation of data between services.

Don't you think Facebook would love to know which TV shows you watch on Hulu or Netflix? Or that Netflix or Hulu would love to know what things you click "like" on with Facebook or Twitter?

Amazon already knows what you're buying, and, presumably, can inject advertisements on any of its services for video and music on a user-by-user level.

And while Google and Apple are relatively new to the original content creation game, you can bet they are all over this.

How these firms decide to share information with each other or what they are able to derive from unsecured user behavior is really the pressing issue here.

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As we use these streaming devices more and more as our primary content consumption method -- and they become more integrated, such as with Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and even over-the-air cord cutter DVR units like TiVo and Tablo, which are capable of consolidating multiple streaming services at once -- how all this information is collected and correlated will become a cause for concern.

Of course, that assumes that, as a society, we really care about this still. The pressing issue in recent years has been the fate of Net Neutrality -- not so much individual privacy as it relates to our viewing habits.

TechRepublic: Net neutrality: The smart person's guide

We are far more concerned with the notion that we will no longer have unfettered, inexpensive access to this content (or rather, the content of our choice on the providers of our choice) rather than how the viewership data of that content is being used to target us as individuals with ads, or how the providers determine the priority of what sort of content to produce in the first place.

For example, I'm not sure that as a progressive secular person that I really want Netflix or Amazon making programming decisions based on what a large demographic of more right-leaning viewers want to see.

Our country for all purposes is politically cut in half right now. And I don't want either having full control or undue bias or influence over my stream feed on any of these services.

Perhaps, the content providers will see this conflict between two large groups as something to make money from -- just as we are seeing this happen on our favorite social media sites.

Red viewers will get promoted Red content, and Blue viewers get promoted Blue content.

Just as Facebook has an algorithm that shows us exactly what we want to see, and creates appropriate echo chambers among sympathetic groups, we can likely expect the same from our streaming services -- if it isn't happening already.

We don't have to worry about governments gaslighting us when, in essence, we are using enabling technology to gaslight ourselves -- and our streaming services are more than happy to create those realities for us, eagerly consuming our habits and promoting content created for our own individual media cocoons.

Do you have concerns about how content streaming companies like Netflix are using your personal viewing habits? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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