Tagged: Netflix

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.

Why Streaming Media Buffers and Why It’s Better To Take the Train

This week, FlowTV has a great lineup of articles on digital media. One noteworthy post comes from Kevin Hamilton, who distinguishes the difference between throughput and latency as the components of broadband. He compares throughput to traffic moving on a roadway. As a highway can only carry so many cars in a given amount of time, a broadband connection can only carry so many megabits per second. Once that limit is exceeded, there’s congestion, which we colloquially call “traffic.”

The second part of broadband is latency, which he compares to pneumatic tubes. Although he abandons the highway metaphor because he didn’t find it fit his understanding of latency, the pneumatic tube example didn’t work for me. As I’ve always understood it, latency is the delay in starting a transfer. Perhaps, if we could go back to the highway metaphor, latency could be compared to those traffic signals at freeway on-ramps that I remember seeing as a child in Los Angeles. (If you are driving with one or more passengers, you can bypass the signal, but who would ever do that?) At any rate, you can’t travel on the highway until you actually get on the road. Incidentally, the purpose of the signal is to reduce highway congestion, but I don’t think it makes anyone’s overall trip any faster.

Carpool Lane On Ramp with Traffic Signal

Planes Are Fast… Sometimes

Speaking of transportation metaphors, my favorite way of comparing latency and throughput is in terms of airline travel. It can take hours to move a few miles to get started on your trip. For example, you take a taxi to the airport, wait in line to get check a bag (if you still do that), clear security, wait for your flight to begin boarding, board the plane and get to your seat, wait for the flight crew to secure the aircraft, and wait for your pilot to queue up for take-off. At the end of all that, you’re finally airborne. All that waiting is latency, and it’s why it’s much faster to take a train to Philadelphia from New York than to fly there, unless you’re just traveling from one airport to another.

Throughput, on the other hand, is the time you’re in the air, en route to your destination. In airline travel, that’s relatively fast, but as anyone who flies in and around New York knows, there’s plenty of congestion which slows your travel time. And because so many flights go through New York, it wreaks havoc on the nation’s air traffic. The same thing happens in inclement weather in other airports, such fog in San Francisco and snow in Chicago. In those cases, the capacity of each airport diminishes because fewer flights can get through.

Not Net Neutrality

Understanding these terms help explain the recent Netflix-Comcast agreement that some critics hailed as the death knell to net neutrality, but as I wrote here some months ago, the agreement has little to do with net neutrality. Thompson explains that it was not a preferred throughput lane that Netflix bought, instead it moved into a crash pad closer to the airport.

By most technical accounts (and even these may still be wrong), the recent agreement between Comcast and Netflix seems to have addressed a throughput problem through an effort at latency reduction. Where many net neutrality advocates worried that Netflix was paying Comcast to give them faster throughput, the agreement is more oriented around removing a middle agent that was introducing latency into the system. Cogent, the company that transported Netflix data to Comcast for delivery to consumers, was not keeping up with demand – not enough staff in the tube transfer room, so to speak – so Netflix worked out a deal to tie their system more integrally to Comcast’s.

Another way of thinking about it was that Netflix cut out some steps towards getting on the plane. It no longer checks a bag, it got PreCheck to go through security faster, and it maybe even gets a ride on a Mercedes right up to the aircraft. Oh, and it always fly nonstop. All that makes the trip faster, cutting down on latency, but it doesn’t get you to the next airport any faster because as far as we know, the Netflix-Comcast peering agreement doesn’t include increased throughput.

At least, not yet.

Not Neutrality

It’s been a busy month for those of us who love streaming video and are suspicious of the cable or telco companies that function as our broadband providers.

First, there was the announcement that Comcast is acquiring Time Warner Cable to increase its position as the largest provider of multichannel video and broadband Internet in the United States. Second, Netflix released the second season of House of Cards over President’s Day weekend led to some quality of service issues for Verizon customers in the Washington, DC area. It was such a popular story that it was the basis of a sales pitch for a Roku Streaming Media player, warning that the days of streaming video might be numbered. Third, over the weekend, a Comcast announced that it had struck an interconnection agreement with Netflix. All of this news comes within the context of a DC district court ruling that the FCC lacks the authority to enforce net neutrality rules over wired Internet service providers.

Dan Rayburn, who writes for the insightful Streaming Media blog, takes issue with the coverage of the Netflix-Comcast deal.

Many of these same people are also implying that because Netflix has to pay Comcast, consumers will foot the bill for this as Netflix will have to charge more for their service. This could not be further from the truth. Those stating this have no clue how Netflix delivers their content today or what costs they already incur. If they did, they would know this is not a new cost to Netflix, it’s simply paying a different provider, and it should be at a lower cost. It should actually be cheaper for Netflix to buy direct from Comcast, and they also get an SLA, which also improves quality and that’s a good thing.

Netflix and Comcast: Get a Room

I’m still trying to figure this out, but it appears that with this agreement, Netflix connects its own routers with Comcast’s. That obviates the need for Netflix to use and pay a third-party content delivery network, such as Cogent or Level3, to route its traffic directly to the ISP. Instead, Netflix will have a direct connection to the Comcast’s pipes and to its broadband customers.

One of the crazy facts about the Internet is that is very much like the telegraph network of a century and a half ago. Yes, both disrupted our conceptions of space and time, but they also share two technical details: both are based on a binary code, and both rely on relays for interconnection. Almost every single transaction you do on the Internet is converted to binary, grouped together as a stream, and then broken up into packets[1]. It then goes through a series of routers that transit your packets to your intended destination. In the days of the telegraph, your message would transit from one telegraph office to another until it finally arrived at its final destination. Messages were priced according to length and distance because you were using up more resources than someone sending a short message to the next town.

A popular Internet service such as Netflix doesn’t have just one server to distribute all of its video content. It has dozens of them. They are located in places that are nearest to their customers. The aim is to minimize not only the distance each data packet has to travel but to also minimize the number of hops. Netflix contracts with companies that provide this service, each is known as a CDN. It appears that this deal merely cuts out the “middle man,” a third-party CDN that transits the data in this case, and allows Netflix connect directly to Comcast’s routers and have access to its customers all the way to the final mile without a third-party intermediary. Comcast subscribers should have a better experience streaming video from Netflix.

Is This Neutral?

With this deal, Netflix on Comcast will be better than Netflix on Verizon. Netflix on Comcast will also be better than another comparable video service (YouTube?) on Comcast that doesn’t have an interconnection agreement. But it should not impact upstart content providers. One of the major concerns of net neutrality is whether smaller players will have their traffic treated equal to the major players. In this case, it appears that the answer is no.

That argument however doesn’t consider Netflix’s size and its footprint on broadband networks. If it truly accounts for nearly a third of all Internet traffic in the US during primetime, it has few, if any, peers. Netflix has joined a new tier of Internet content providers, something like:

  1. Websites, blogs, and commercial services hosted on one server. If you’ve ever paid for a web hosting account, chances are you did this. You can get away with doing this because you are not serving much content and can stay within the bandwidth limits of your hosting plan. A dedicated server would be next option once you outgrow your shared hosting account.
  2. Websites, blogs, and commercial services hosted across different servers. Once a website becomes even more popular, it could outgrow that one server, and will have to shift its content across a number of servers. Many sites pay a CDN for the trouble of locating servers across different locations because it can be expensive— think rent and utility bills.
  3. Netflix. It is in a class by itself, connecting directly to the ISPs network. It has outgrown the third-party CDN model and struck a deal with the ISP itself. It is both a content provider and a Tier 2 network.

Again, I’m still trying to understand all of this, but it appears that net neutrality is still important even if it doesn’t apply to this case. Content providers in the first category above are safe because their volume of bandwidth is relatively low and won’t overwhelm ISP networks. Content providers in the second category should also be safe should they not overwhelm ISP networks. However, content distributors might have cause for concern if too many of their customers are like Netflix and begin overwhelming their peer networks. It’s just hard to determine what the line might be and how much it will cost to join this elite class of an upper-tier network. It’s also hard to predict if peer agreements effectively constitute preferential treatment.


  1. This is largely metaphorical. Forgive me if my use of this terminology is imprecise.  ↩

My Last Netflix Disk…for Now

Last Netflix Disk

Although I wasn’t one of the 800,000 subscribers who cancelled their Netflix subscriptions, I did cancel their DVD-by-mail part of my subscription and kept the video streaming since I use that more anyway. Two days ago Netflix charged me for the new billing period, which includes only the streaming service, and today I received what should be my last DVD-by-mail from Netflix, at least for now.

This marks the end of an era for me. I joined Netflix in 1998 when my first DVD player, a Toshiba branded deck, came with a card that offered a free trial for an unlimited DVD by mail service. At the time, the service cost $15 a month and you could have 4 disks at a time. I remember wondering, when I first signed up, how are they going to send me a DVD by mail, considering that I was used to getting DVDs encased in those jewel boxes. Little did I know that they had designed those now ubiquitous red-and-white sleeves.

I held on to the service for a few years until I moved to New York, mostly because I thought that the DVDs had to come from California, where the company was based. Little did I know that the service had gone national.

I re-upped in 2004, partly in an effort to get the airline-mile bonus that Netflix offered to new customers. At the time, the subscription offered only three disks for almost $20 per month, and over the years, I scaled back to two disks, then to one disk, and, after this week, to none.

The streaming service proved to be the “disk killer” for me. The convenience of watching a movie or television series, even if it’s not my first choice, is much better than waiting two-to-three days to watch a movie on DVD. I was a bit late the streaming service when it was first offered. I had a Powerbook G4 as my only computer from 2004 until 2009, and the PowerPC chip wasn’t good enough to run the streaming service. I didn’t do Netflix streaming until I bought a Roku in 2009 to watch Netflix Instant through a TV. Since then I have linked my Blu-Ray player, iPad, and iPhone to my Netflix accounts. It’s now possible to see Netflix just about anywhere I can get a 2 megabit Internet connection.

Will I miss the disks? Not really. DVD was always a problematic medium, given its rather short life.

I know that Neflix gets blamed for killing the local video store, and that studios are withholding streaming content from Netflix because they fear that Netflix is going to kill the DVD format and then the multichannel video distributor. I have theories behind the decline of each of these institutions, and I don’t think Netflix has had a substantial role. I’ll save that discussion for another day, but for now, I know that my mailbox will be a little emptier for the time being.