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Meet my new boyfriend

Netflix is getting to know me better, but it still has a creepy side

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Netflix and I are tight. We spend a lot of time together.

Sometimes we're crazy in love, like when I'm in the middle of a gin-fuelled Mad Men binge. But other times we don't communicate at all, like when Netflix keeps insisting that I want to watch the schlock horror flick The Human Centipede.

Our relationship got off to a rocky start. In the beginning, I shared my viewing profile with everyone else in my house, which threw Netflix's recommendation engine into demographic disarray. I could imagine it frantically trying to recalibrate itself as it was bombarded by Japanese anime, raunchy teen comedies and Jane Austen adaptations.

Thankfully, in August, Netflix brought in a multi-user feature that offers individualized profiles for up to five people on one account. Now everyone can have his or her own viewing history and taste preferences.

That means Netflix and I have been offered a new start, a chance to fall in love all over again. I've been rating movies like crazy this week, trying to improve what have been some adorably arbitrary recommendations. (Before I started, "Top 10 for Alison" and "Random Picks" were still pretty much neck and neck.)

I've also been honing my profile by answering questions through the Taste Preferences feature, which felt a bit like an awkward first date. How often, Netflix asked, do I watch movies that are Cerebral, Chilling, Controversial, Cynical? How often do I watch movies about Enduring Love, Forbidden Love, Evil Kids, Rogue Cops, Opposites-Attract, Fight-the-System, Pirates, Valentine's Day and Viral Plagues?

Unfortunately, the only categories that really matter to me are Good Movies and Bad Movies, and even Netflix's ambitious algorithms haven't cracked that yet.

So far, my personalized categories are not super-accurate, but they are at least flattering. Netflix, that old smooth-talker, tells me that I love Visually-Striking Violent Suspense Movies, Critically-Acclaimed Cerebral Independent Dramas and Deadpan Comedies.

Netflix is known for its hilariously drawn-out descriptors. The site's prank for this year's April Fool's Day involved made-up subgenres that were only slightly stranger and more specific than its usual fare. Those April 1 listings included Movies Featuring an Epic Nicolas Cage Meltdown and Movies and TV Shows Abut Seriously Pissed-Off Wives (which, come to think of it, both sound like awesome categories).

The last April Fool's grouping was When You Watch Netflix, It Watches You, which featured movies with big staring eyes. This one was funny cause it's true. Netflix is watching you. And in some ways, it knows you better than you know yourself.

This is where my attentive media boyfriend turns to a slightly creepy stalker. Netflix knows, for example, that I gave up halfway through that tremendously worthwhile but sort of depressing documentary about the food system. It knows my secret '60s sitcom pleasures. It listens politely to my star ratings, but it's much more interested in my viewing record. That's because Netflix realizes that most of us are guilty of what its recommendation-engine designers call "aspirational ratings."

We give high star ratings to weighty, important material because we feel we should, but that doesn't mean we actually watch it. It's like the difference between your dating profile (candlelit dinners, long walks on the beach) and your actual life.

Recommendations drive about 75 per cent of Netflix viewing. The recommendation area is colourful and crowded, offering all the promise of viewing romance. The Search function, meanwhile, is a bit of a romance-killer, a place where gauzy dreams meet the reality check of disappointment and frustration. Netflix is hard to browse, and browsing tends to be a negative experience, with a constant repetition of Unavailable to Stream, Unavailable to Stream, Unavailable to Stream...

Still, all relationships take work, right? As long as we keep the lines of communication open, I think Netflix and I will be fine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 D12

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