Sam Anderson’s article “Judging Your Friends by their Netflix Queue” made it onto a few blogs and the like over the past week, often with comments along the lines of “This article is totally true.” Anderson describes his initial reaction:
When I first started looking at my friends’ Netflix lists, it felt a little creepy. The records of our cultural consumption (video rentals, library checkouts) have traditionally been protected by law. for all kinds of excellent reasons—tyrants, stalkers, mothers-in-law—so even though I’d been invited to look, my conscience kept telling me I’d crossed into sacred territory. I felt like an information-age window peeper, like I had dipped my toe into the shallow end of a pool whose deep end was Watergate. This feeling only intensified when many of my real-life friends refused to accept me as their Netflix friend. Though they’d talk to me all day about their DVD-watching habits—their three-month Buffy binges and methodical screenings of the entire Owen Wilson catalog—for some reason they wouldn’t let me see an actual list of the actual films they were actually renting.
This paragraph caught my attention. Like many people who find something interesting but are not actually knowledgeable about it, I will now proceed to climb on to my tiny digital soapbox and talk about it for a moment.
A few thoughts came to mind. Anderson’s initial reaction caused me to remember when I showed some colleagues last.fm this summer — they were first almost repelled by the idea that I and others would share our music history like that, but within a few minutes they started saying “show me that chart.”
Much like the Netflix’s Friends feature, last.fm profiles show a user’s actual behavior rather than a reported behavior. Compare this to what users list on Facebook or other profiles for their favorite music and movies. Those are representations users choose, and what people say they do is rarely exactly what they do.
I’m curious, then, if services like last.fm and Netflix friends will change how people express themselves in listing favorite music or movies. I used to think a little bit before filling in my favorite music or answering what track is currently stuck in my head. Music that I considered to be a guilty pleasure (generally music that is catchy but not necessarily of great critical value, c.f. some songs by Coldplay) would usually not make these lists. This all stopped one day when I noticed that my Facebook list of favorite music had grown a ways apart from my last.fm profile. This was partly by design — the same sort of decisions that people make when deciding what books to put on office or living room shelves — and partly because what I thought I listened to most wasn’t necessarily what I do listen to most. I decided to fix it by just copying over my last.fm reported top tracks.
My new method didn’t last very long. I started thinking that certain artists seemed to be missing, and quickly tack them back on to the end of the list. Sure, I’d rationalize it by saying “oh, she’s new,” or “well, they’ve only put out one album, so of course they get overwhelmed by more prolific artists.” The truth is, there was a discrepancy between what last.fm reported and what I wanted to list, and I felt a need to fix it.
Are tools that report our actual cultural consumption at odds with our ability to choose how we express ourselves? Does it matter?
I can’t say that I’m going anywhere with these thoughts (and I can say that I don’t know the first thing about self expression and identity), but I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a few days.