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Two thumbs down: Netflix’s new ratings button isn’t the one we need

Netflix’s extra thumb won’t fix what really matters

Big news from Netflix HQ this week: the company tweaked its ratings system a bit. The telly streaming service that once decided choosing between five stars was too complicated for people and thereby switched to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down approach now reckons that’s not nuanced enough. Well, something was needed to distract from last month’s price rises.

Anyway, Netflix reckons the revamp will allow for “even better recommendations”, thereby making quite the assumption that its recommendations are any good in the first place. So what are the new changes? Thumbs-down remains (dubbed ‘Not for me’ rather than ‘Fire this trash into the sun’, which would be much better) and thumbs-up stays (as ‘I like this’). But now you can also select a double thumbs-up icon (‘Love this!’), which when clicked or tapped emits a sad little explosion of stars, echoing your increasing ennui at mainlining yet another series before the previous one you watched has had a chance to bed in.

But will this be enough? Might we soon also get a ‘three thumbs up’ button for shows we really really love, or four for a series that made everyone so excited that random family members exploded with glee on watching it? (That was a bad night to be on cleaning up duties.) I hope not, but stupid ratings systems have a habit of taking hold – and they’re tricky to shake.

Netflix Ratings: iPad interface

Medium offers a great example. Rather than having people show approval by clicking a like button, that site a while back decided people should instead spam a clap button up to 50 times, assuming your clicking/tapping digit doesn’t seize up first. Head back through the history of print magazines and things are even worse: countless publications genuinely cared whether a product was worth 84% or 83% – and trained readers to as well. Games mag ACE took that line of thought to its logical conclusion, rating games out of a thousand. Mayhem!

Netflix’s relative restraint is to be applauded, then, and it broadly apes classic Melody Maker ratings from the 1990s, albeit (sadly) without using ‘bloody essential’ as the phrase for highest praise. However, I question whether it’ll impact on anything that matters. The service has confirmed the button won’t rescue cancelled shows. It’s probably more about Netflix than it is about you. Perhaps the service isn’t getting enough insight from existing metrics and hopes this revised system will fix that and ramp up engagement.

In one sense, this will admittedly provide potential benefits. Netflix says a thumbs up lets the company know what you like, and two thumbs up helps it “get even more specific with your recommendations”. That said, when the Netflix interface mostly presents the same shows and movies in multiple rows but in different orders, with alternate artwork cynically geared towards individual users – and also doesn’t have any way of knowing what you’ve watched elsewhere – it’s hard to know if a touch more specificity surrounding recommendations will make any meaningful difference.

Fortunately, though, I’ve thought of a way to fix the service more broadly, making it a leader in quality user experience. The solution is more buttons. Imagine how great it would be if we had an ‘Ignore this terrible show forever’ button, a ‘Make Continue Watching the first thing I see’ button, a ‘Stop hiking prices and saying it’s for my benefit’ button, and an ‘Actually show your catalogue in alphabetical order’ button. And if there was a ‘Give us a fourth season of Santa Clarita Diet because you sociopaths ended it on a cliffhanger’ button, even I’d hammer that like one of Medium’s ridiculous clap buttons.