By Nadine Sayegh
Big Tech are now the most powerful publishers of our time, and Netflix should be viewed with the same scepticism as Facebook and Google.
As an informal call for content is made from Netflix to the Arab world and wider region, it proves a worthy time to understand the impact this platform has had in the recent years since it’s launch. Critical to responding to these calls for new ‘ideas’ we must keep the concept of representation firm in hand, considering the effect the platform has on the world.
The term Netflix Effect has come to refer to a number of things: the way in which the content is curated, the content itself and its social and economic impact, new representation, and the recommendations of its associated algorithms.
Essentially, these arguments combined bring into question who the ‘agenda-setters’ are today. As individuals find themselves more aware of the inherent bias in news content, they become conscious curators of news – Netflix, however, presents as inherently unbiased. A platform to stream a huge variety of content, where the only bias is the one you put forth in your selection.
Netflix has become a disruptor in the way content is consumed, it has affected the economy as an entity and in the productions it airs, and may subtly direct the world’s collective consciousness to issues that may not exactly be relevant or information represented accurately.
Regionally, Netflix has both produced and curated some interesting content, certainly diverse but in some cases in the Arab world, what the company attributes as a success, the country itself often reacts violently to.
For example, the series Jinn, filmed in Jordan, referenced as a ‘fan favourite’ caused an outcry in Jordan. Calls to ban the series were made by several different bodies, and society as a whole felt the show did not represent the country or their values in any way, though the series was filmed in Jordan.
Furthermore, the series was directed by a Lebanese national, this points to nuances of culture that can be severely missed, even with such close, neighbourly, communities. As the call for local content is launched in the MENA region, Netflix also signs a deal with Saudi Telfaz11 (production company) for eight films to be released in 2021.
As this is essentially a global platform, saturating it with content from certain companies/countries de-facto acting as community representatives can be harmful to stereotyping in the future. The Arab world and wider region is rife with social and cultural nuances that deserve to be on screen and accurately represented but what is their access route to the online giant?
This is not to say this was necessarily done with intent, malicious or otherwise, just that it is having intended and unintended consequences.
A simpler example to highlight how influential Netflix productions and curations are having on the world is the recently released, Queen’s Gambit. Focused on a female protagonist, who goes on to become a chess master, has boosted search queries and orders on chess sets to incredible degrees, even registration to chess competitions saw dramatic increases.
Combined with the pandemic, the Netflix Effect on popular culture is soaring to new heights. Another example is how the completely bizarre story of ‘Tiger King’ ended up a global phenomenon. The seven-part docuseries, placing itself as a real-crime mystery/documentary, where the main topic of discussion was ‘Joe Exotic’ owner of a big-cat zoo. While the show engulfed the viewer enough to binge-watch the whole series – the topic of animal abuse soon after took over popular discussions, particularly regarding big cats.
While it was centred in the US this essentially was the fifth most-viewed series on the platform – ever. More dangerously, a teen-drama series, 13 Reasons Why, centred on the aftermath of a high-school student’s suicide, led to an increase in suicide rates in that age group and Netflix was pushed to raise a mental health awareness campaign.
The Social Dilemma was another production with outsized impact. A documentary on the way we use social media, or rather, how it seems social media is starting to use us. Focusing on several aspects of social media use, a number of articles were released on the concerns of social media. “The film argues that social media is highly addictive, manipulatively designed on the basis of an ‘attention extraction model’ to control our behaviour, keep us scrolling and wanting more,” says one such article. The loop of personalisation online was heavily discussed in the hit documentary, ironically, aired on a platform built on a similar system.
“According to Netflix, 80% of watched content comes from recommendations. In an age where brands across all industries are trying to predict what customers want next and create personalized recommendations, Netflix is setting the bar,” as written in yet another article discussing the impact of the platform.
While the platform itself has come to be recognised as heavily impactful, we must now pay closer attention to the content of Netflix productions and be conscious of the bias of individual and collective identities.
Our selection on the platform ultimately narrows our future choices, and highly promoted and viewed content gains more traction but we cannot let this model dictate our current concerns because other media have oversaturated or have become redundant. Implicit bias is inherent in anything created or viewed by an individual therefore indicating that an agenda is being presented for consumption as well, it just comes in a friendlier form.
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