If you go onto your Netflix homepage, you’ll see a glittering sea of possibilities. Thousands of titles, all which represent opportunities to lose yourself in new stories and new worlds.
What you might not know is that Netflix uses AI to personalize the artwork, to make it as likely as humanly possible to get you to click “Watch.” They'll do anything to get you to just press play, especially as they use slightly misleading numbers such as a two-minute watch time to include as a "viewed" show. So it makes sense that they'll pull out every tool in their arsenal to try to get people to click.
They’re not coy about it — it’s a cool piece of technology that they’re written about before. Essentially, they use your personal viewing preferences to choose which still image out of several options they’ll use as the display of the show. Personalization is the future of content, and Netflix has been making the most of it by ensuring that what they recommend to their viewers is geared to their past preferences.
Normally it's absolutely harmless. For example, if you show you like Ryan Gosling by watching his movies, they’ll make sure any TV shows or movies he’s in feature him prominently on the artwork.
If you like romances, they’ll change the artwork of dramas, crime shows, thrillers, to show romantic stills.
Naturally, you can see that this would be a little misleading, as they can draw stills from any point in the movie that doesn't necessarily represent what the movie is about.
The problem is that if you’re what they consider to be Black according to their algorithms, whatever that means, they’ll go so far as to show you Black people on the artwork, looking very much like they’re the leads of the show, when in fact they have minor roles. Check out this example of Love Actually below:
This is frustrating because Black people don’t get to star in movies nearly as much as White people. Movies are made predominantly for White audiences. Black people simply are expected to enjoy White movies (for example The Avengers, Jason Bourne, Love Actually — all predominantly white).
This is what happens when there’s a lack of diversity and representation at the highest levels of technology.
Only this year has a predominantly Black superhero movie been made — the incredibly successful Black Panther — and that was over the yells and shout of racist trolls.
So it’s incredibly misleading, disappointing, and frankly suspicious that Netflix tries to hook in Black viewers with false pretenses. But it's not surprising.
This is what happens when there’s a lack of diversity and representation at the highest levels of technology. This is why Amazon had to recall its sexist algorithm that sifted through thousands of applications — because it penalized applications that had the word “Women’s” in it , like “Women’s Chess Club” or “Women’s Football Captain.” They built an algorithm modelled after resumes of current employees who are predominantly male.
This is why facial recognition technology fails — it doesn't recognize Black faces because it was made, and tested on, White faces.
People like to believe science and technology are free from human issues. But technology can be biased - racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic and transphobic when its creators are. Netflix is no exception. This failure marks the need to have greater watch over the technology in place designed to generate money at the cost of marginalized people.