When Your Computer Calls You a Nerd: A Guest Post

Ian Ayres‘s recent book, Super Crunchers, contains an interesting description of the secret to the success of Netflix (a company that’s been discussed before on this blog). According to Ayres, Netflix’s movie recommendation algorithms are so good that they know my taste in movies better than I do. It is a source of wonderment to me just how well they know what I’ll like.

But last week, my friend and colleague Todd Sinai complained that Netflix had essentially just called him a nerd: it suggested that he rent a movie called Helvetica. That’s right: a movie about … a font. He thought that the algorithm had made a mistake. I just figured that Netflix had discovered that Todd is a bit of a tech-loving nerd. As a result of this recommendation, needless to say, he was mercilessly mocked by his econo-friends at Wharton.

But this week, it was my turn. Netflix has now recommended that I, too, rent the movie whose romantic lead is played by a (rather beautiful) sans-serif font. Yep: called a nerd by a super-crunching computer. It hurts. Still, given the film’s reviews, I decided to embrace my inner geek, and the DVD is currently on its way. After all, the Netflix algorithm is almost never wrong.

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  1. lighthouse says:

    Helvetia is a great watch. Loved the impolitic designer they interview in the middle. I am expecting you to eat crow after you see this.

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  2. John says:

    Despite the title, it is actually a very interesting movie. (if you like documentaries, which I do) I would recommend it highly.

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  3. bx says:

    More scary, perhaps, is that that this web site was smart enough to display a Netflix ad!

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  4. azabache says:

    A type nerd, to be specific.

    (I’m not ashamed to be one myself. But then, I stopped being ashamed of anything over twenty years ago; it was a waste of time.)

    Helvetica is a terrific film about something taken for granted.

    I think the impolitic designer may be Erik Spiekermann who created “Officina Sans”–another successful typeface that better watch its back, it’s becoming too popular for its own good.

    Yes, designers are weird.

    And nerdy.

    Even though some of them wear black to look cool.

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  5. ML Harris says:

    Back about ten years ago, when I was a software nerd, a friend of mine got a magazine for font designers. We read the letters, in the same way one reads the Weekly World News in the late 90’s… ironically.

    The people were so nuts that our retail problem customers were referred to as “font designers.” Typical use:
    “Boy, that guy was a real font designer.”

    Helvetica will not be coming up on my list. And if it does, you can always give it the Nay-No with the barred circle of disinterest.

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  6. Robin says:

    Ha, that movie appeared on my suggestion list about a week ago too. Netflix must suggest it to all people of the geekular variety.

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  7. Jennifer says:

    I think Helvetica sounds like a great flick. Didn’t realize that made me any more of a nerd than, say, reading and commenting on the Freakonomics blog.

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  8. anandine says:

    It’s interesting that Netflix is offering $1 million for an algorithm that is 10% better than their current Cinematch software.


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  9. Davey says:

    You know, I’ve often been described as a geek in a linebacker’s body. Since “Helvetica” keeps popping up on my Netflix screen, I guess I’m confirmed. That and the comic book obsession.

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  10. Gretchen says:

    Seriously? My Netflix suggestions suck. I’ve actually commented on that in conversation before this point too. Or maybe I’m just in denial about my own tastes…

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  11. Shan says:

    There’s nothing wrong with being a nerd/geek. I’ve been taking pride in my geekdom ever since I started doing well at chess tournaments in high school. You probably should have at least admitted it by the time you decided to get a PhD in economics.

    Anyway, let us know how “Helvetica” turns out… I might have to check it out too.

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  12. melissa says:

    I almost went to see Helvetica in the theater! I ended up viewing it on Netflix. It was a good documentary, but even more important for an economics discussion, it is released on RedEnvelope films, owned by Netflix! I wonder if the algorithm is a little “loose” to get as many copies out as possible?

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  13. Joel says:

    Ever heard of Red Envelope Entertainment? Google it. Netflix acts as a publisher of independent DVDs. The reason they are recommending this movie to everybody is they are the publisher. There are probably other movies you’d enjoy more, but they are made by other companies.

    There is nothing wrong with pushing your own product. But what I find sad here is that Netflix allows/encourages the belief that their recommendation engine doesn’t have any ulterior motive than finding you a good flick. When in fact which movies get recommended depends a great deal on the deals they have with the DVD publishers, and this goes beyond Red Envelope productions to preferring one mainstream publisher over another.

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  14. Jake says:

    I was unaware of the Red Envelope twist to this story, truth is stanger than fiction I guess. I saw Helvetica (recommended by a graphic arts designer I know), and guess what, it was interesting! I never thought about the font before, but its fascinating to see part of the world that has always been there, yet I’ve never really cared to notice. Although, one guy in the film was so passionate about the font it was a bit creepy. I think that guy was more a nerd than anyone who casually watched this nerdy movie. Final thought, what’s wrong with being intelligent (nerdy)?

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  15. Cameron says:

    I, too, saw Helvetica, although I picked it without a recommendation. I must say, I haven’t looked at standard typeface the same way since. I see it everywhere!!!

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  16. Simon says:

    Helvetica is a really good documentary and Netflix are most likely proud to have released it. I say good on them for promoting it, even if that did mean loosening the algorithm a bit.

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  17. Scott Supak says:

    Helvetica is sitting on my shelf waiting for me to watch it right now. Netflix recommended it, even though my two children’s rankings tend to dominate the recommendations, they still knew I’d want to see this.

    To show how much of a nerd (web designer who actually uses the font a lot) I really am, I’m kind of looking forward to it.

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  18. Akshay says:

    I made it through 2/3rds of the movie before I gave up. There was maybe 30 minutes of good information/ documentary upto that point – why is the font so popular, what’s the origins, etc. … beyond that, it’s just fanboy vs. hater rants.

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  19. Laura says:

    After reading the comments by Melissa and Joel, I googled red envelope entertainment and was shocked to see just how many of the films netflix has suggested to me were released by that company…maybe you’re not as nerdy as you think.

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  20. tim says:

    Back on topic. Netflix’s recommendation engine works well for people with predictable tastes. Netflix’s (and Amazon’s) doesn’t work well for me. I like movies in all genre’s. I don’t like certain actors unless they are not the leads. I don’t like movies from certain directors. Regardless of those preferences some genres it will never recommend movies for me. If I rent a certain movie with a certain actor as a supporting and rate it high – I will get a recommendation for a movie with that actor as a lead. If I get a get a movie in a certain genre where a particular director has done a lot of work in I will get a recommendation to try that director even though I rated down his movies in the past. The one to five star scale is not enough information to truly tailor the recommendations to my tastes… I may like an actors performance but the story or directing is awful. I may love the story but an actors performance is awful. Its all or nothing with these engines…

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  21. Ruthie says:

    Helvetica is my favorite movie!!! The best. I wrote about it in my college essay.

    The director is also so awesome, he designed the font on New York City garbage cans.

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  22. Rodger says:

    Not sure why you guys keep talking about NetFlix. All movies I watch (and I would venture 99% or more from NetFlix) are available via torrent. Helvetica? No problem: http://www.mininova.org/tor/1018081

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  23. Corianne says:

    As nerdy as it sounds, Helvetica was great. (or maybe it’s my status as a type freak that colors my opinion) One never realizes just how prominent something is until it’s pointed out. Helvetica is everywhere.

    As far as Red Envelope entertainment- it’s a positive thing that Netflix has branched out beyond just rentals. Many of the movies that I have gotten from Netflix would not been available otherwise if it weren’t for their Red Envelope company, and these were movies that I chose independently, rather than having them recommended.

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  24. Scott says:

    Isn’t it wonderful that Netflix can predict with astounding accuracy which films you’d enjoy?

    Isn’t it?

    I think it’s worth raising the question of whether or not it’s wise to trust an algorithm which is nearly infallible at feeding people *more of what they like*.

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  25. Ian Ayres says:

    There are worse things than being outed as a nerd. Last year, msnbc’s prediction tool started recommending that I read “American Idol” articles.


    I feel a little sleazy rooting for Chikezie!

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  26. ad says:

    Gosh, when Netflix recommended it to me, I thought it looked good. Guess I embraced my inner nerd without realizing it!

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