Measuring Popularity in Communities

I was browsing Netflix over the weekend and captured this screen image…

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Judging by the online reviews none of these movies should be considered “popular new releases” but I had to ponder this a little more before arriving at the critical framing question, which is what is the nature of popularity?

The answer to the core question really depends on what your context is, or in the case of Netflix what they want to promote… new releases that rank about the most downloaded and/or shipped or the best new releases as measured by customer review and then overlaid to my own preferences and history.

The problem with reviews is that they don’t necessarily map to what I would review them as, and as much as Netflix has invested in their matching algorithms they still leave much to be desired. I really don’t trust Netflix’s recommendation system but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because I recognize how hard this is and with continued development the system is likely to improve.

If I scratch recommendations off the list then popularity is simply a function of viewership numbers or customer review but the problem with viewership is that we don’t know what it is and unlike an actual movie ticket where you are investing $10 to see it the Netflix experience imposes few penalties for selecting your movies poorly therefore you add pretty much anything to the queue knowing that if it’s a dud you send it back and don’t incur any incremental charges.

I think where I come down on this is that Netflix should be ranking movie popularity according to customer reviews and applying a weighting or logarithmic function that normalizes the curve to allow new movies to float up the ranking ladder to avoid “the more you have the more you get” phenomena that voting systems often fall into.

This may seem like an arcane or really niche issue but if you think about the mechanics that are involved in measuring popularity in communities then you can start to see the broad applicability of what I detailed above and why it becomes an issue of strategic importance for not just incentivizing engagement and contribution of reviews but also serving your customers the content most likely to appeal to their preferences, or simply avoid the mistake of misrepresenting something like popularity