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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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