“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.