Netflix Believes in the Power of Thumbs

The company is swapping out its five-star rating system for a simpler one—another sign of its changing approach to the user experience.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings (AP Photo / Manu Fernandez)

What’s the difference between rating a movie you just watched out of five stars, versus giving it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down? Most people might not see too much of a distinction—but Netflix does. According to the streaming service, you give a star rating to impress other people; it’s a way of channeling your inner critic. But delivering a simple yes-or-no verdict with your thumb? That’s brutal honesty, through and through. This strange reasoning is apparently why the company is moving to revamp its current star-based rating system: Moving forward, viewers will be encouraged to rate titles they do or don’t enjoy by harnessing the simple, gladiatorial power of the thumb.

For years, Netflix’s algorithm depended on viewers submitting star ratings. This helped the streaming service learn which genres and performers subscribers enjoyed so the company could offer hyper-specific recommendations. That’s partly how you get those disturbingly insightful category tabs suggested to you: Genres like “Campy Independent Crime Comedies” or “Mind-bending French-Language Dramas” are prompted by the site’s algorithm mining your ratings history. But in recent years, Netflix has stopped trusting the billions and billions of star ratings it has collected from subscribers.

“Five stars feels very yesterday,” Netflix’s Vice President of Product Todd Yellin said at a press briefing last week, even though the company once boasted that more than half its members had rated at least 50 titles on the site, giving it reams of data that it could use to stay ahead of competitors. With a star rating, Yellin said, viewers are effectively telling the world what they thought of a title and giving the overall experience a quantitative grade. But with a thumb, Yellin argues, you’re reflecting on your own enjoyment to yourself. In other words, it’s less performative.

“What’s more powerful: You telling me you would give five stars to the documentary about unrest in the Ukraine; that you’d give three stars to the latest Adam Sandler movie; or that you’d watch the Adam Sandler movie 10 times more frequently,” Yellin said. “What you do versus what you say you like are different things.” Of course, Netflix also gathers plenty of data on what you do—your viewing history is hugely important to the resulting algorithms. But the thumbs reflect that history far better, according to Yellin.

This approach might sound like some sort of reverse snobbery, encouraging viewers to embrace their guilty pleasures rather than build out a collection of works they’d consider “important” or “critically acclaimed.” But this change stems from a real challenge the company faces as it beefs up its library of original content. The Netflix database isn’t the easiest to browse (especially when viewed on a TV screen), and it isn’t designed to give the viewer an endless, alphabetized list of options to sift through. “We’re spending many billions of dollars on the titles we’re producing and licensing, and with these big catalogs, that just adds a challenge,” Yellin said. “Bubbling up the stuff people actually want to watch is super important.”

When Netflix was a haven for cineastes, the star rating made more sense. There were tons of classic and arthouse film titles lurking in its library, and devoted movie nerds (some of whom are already migrating their Netflix ratings to other star-friendly sites like Letterboxd) could input as much data as possible to help find exciting new things to watch. But Netflix has moved away from a vast catalog of films over the years, partly because of the growing cost of acquiring the streaming rights to other companies’ movies.

Instead, it’s now financing and acquiring its own original movies, to go with its ever-growing selection of television shows, documentaries, and comedy specials. Its subscriber base has exploded far beyond that more obsessive film-nerd core to encompass more casual viewers, and according to Yellin, thumbs-up ratings are much more appealing to this new group. When Netflix piloted the thumb system for some users, it saw a 200 percent increase in ratings logged. What once was Uber is becoming Tinder—swipe left if you weren’t thrilled, right if you’d like to see more.

The thumbs will go hand-in-hand with a “percent match” system that suggests titles to you based on how much it thinks you’ll like it, similar to the “compatibility” rating offered on OKCupid and other dating sites. Such a system sounds like it could be limiting, basically funneling viewers into specific genres and viewing patterns rather than trying to broaden their horizons. But Netflix is trying to give users the most satisfying experience in the quickest way possible, not improve the art of cinema.

Perhaps that’s why some movie-lovers were wringing their hands over the loss of star ratings. Eric Kohn at Indiewire worried that the company, which looks like it will play a huge part in the future of moviemaking, is too interested in “giving the audience exactly what it wants,” rather than offering “surprising new experiences.” It’s an extension of the Rotten/Fresh rating system employed at Rotten Tomatoes, he noted—a swift critical judgment that can be a little too binary.

As the CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse, Tim League, added in an Indiewire editorial, “Netflix is in the business of growing a global customer base by being the best value proposition subscription content platform ... Cinemas are in the business of offering an incredible, immersive experience that you simply cannot duplicate at home.” Netflix alone won’t decide the fate of the filmmaking, and a night unwinding on the couch remains very different from a night out at the movies. The former demands something more comforting and familiar; the second, a little more critical rigor. The noble thumb and the worthy star can still coexist—just not on Netflix.