The Internet, The Long Tail, and the End of the Video Store Clerk Effect

The “Internet” gets riled up about a few things from time-to-time that, in the great scheme of things, don’t really matter. Earlier this month, the Internet got mad that Netflix was apparently closely examining its customers’ viewing patterns to produce this tweet:

The Internet’s outrage was due to one of two factors, or in the case of some people, probably both:

  1. People just now realize that Netflix actually tracks and stores what we watch on Netflix. To those people, I say, “well, duh!”
  2. People dislike the tone that the Netflix social media team took with its users and what they watch. Let’s call this the “video store clerk effect.”

Spotify did something similar in the past, where it made a tongue-in-cheek ad based on its customers’ music listening.

While I appreciate the point that @xor makes by reminding us that our VCRs and record players didn’t make fun of us, allow me to remind all these analog dweebs what it was like to visit a video store or a record store. Part of me dreaded visiting these kinds of stores because of the clerks who worked there, passing judgement on what I movie I was renting or what CD I was buying.

Perhaps, I should have been less self-conscious and been proud of my cultural choices. Or maybe were it not for those clerks, I would not have curated my hipster tastes more carefully.

Nonetheless, when I first got on the Internet and bought a CD through CDNow in 1995, I really liked this experience because…

  • the selection was much more diverse than what I could find at a local music shop, or what Chris Anderson refers to as the “long tail.”
  • there was an impersonal anonimity in that I could buy whatever I wanted

I don’t remember what I bought and if it was all that embarrassing, but I seem to recall that I was programming a radio show on KCSB at the time, which likely meant it was something hard-to-find in the Santa Barbara–area.

To be sure, I know that my personal preferences, listening and viewing data, and my shopping habits are all tracked by a multitude of companies. However, I also don’t remember those algorithms making fun of me whenever I brought something to the counter. And, as far as I know, no algorithm ever its friends that I would see around town about what I music or movies I like.

Finally, the whole Internet backlash against Netflix might have been overblown. I heard one theory that the @netflix social media team just might have fabricated that fifty-three people had watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past two weeks.

If that’s the case, it’s not creepy, it’s comedy.

However, Swarm/Foursquare did something similar and reported on some extraordinary streaks that its users have made.

Given that Swarm/Foursquare offers almost no benefit other than reporting check-ins, I would avoid annoying its users, lest they feel they’re being judged for liking donuts and sandwiches.

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