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