I Know What You Watched Last Summer…Sort of

Call it healthy curiosity, call it chronic nosiness, but I* always want to know things about other people. The cashier at Walgreens, the bus driver, construction workers, everybody. I suspect that I’m not alone in this, but our social norms don’t allow strolling up to strangers and interrogating them about their breakfast preference, income and relationship with their parents.

Maybe that’s where the overheated, monotonous fixation on famous people comes from in pop culture. It’s not polite (or, in some cases, legal) to photograph your next-door neighbor and speculate wildly about who the people coming and going from her apartment might be. But it’s considered just fine to do it to someone we see on TV. Would the world be different if it was okay to want to know a little bit more about people right in our neighborhoods instead of being told everything about people we don’t even care about?

For better or for worse, we might be on our way to finding out.

Check out this infographic at The New York Times showing the relative popularity, by ZIP code, of 50 frequent Netflix rentals in Atlanta and 11 other major metro areas.

The map can be moved around a bit by click-and-drag, and the results can be sorted by alphabetical order, popularity or by the movies’ respective Metacritic scores.

There are limits to what the map really tells us, though. The fact that a lot of people rented something doesn’t mean that that they all liked it, sat through the whole thing or watched it at all. I just returned the first disc of Mad Men, utterly un-watched, after having it sitting around for a week. But just my having had it in the house contributes to its popularity rating.

Also, the viewing habits of a pretty small group of people probably unduly influence the results. Some people just love movies and are about as discriminating as a starving goat in a compost heap about what they’ll watch. Subscribers with the more expensive plans are probably less selective, so wouldn’t those households’ choices influence the results a lot? Finally, there’s no way of telling just how many people in any one ZIP code even use Nextflix. Cable, Redbox, the ubiquity of bootlegs or even a good library keep lots of people off the Netflix bandwagon, so it’s impossible to know just whose preferences we’re really looking at. Strangely, there’s no accompanying article to explain how or if any of those factors were considered.

Even just a sidebar telling how the reporters created the map, how long it took to put it together, what tools they used to create it and how easy or difficult it was to get Netflix to share the data would have been great, but maybe they didn’t have time to get the infographic and a story done by deadline.

All that said, it is really cool and I spent a good 20 minutes playing with it. Census data it’s not, but there are someĀ conclusions you can jump to things you can learn about your neighbors.

*The cart is well in front of the horse here, as I’m posting this before I’ve even finished my “Hi! I’m Tamra”-type post. But this was much more interesting than talking about myself.

2 Comments so far

  1. james hervey (jeherv) on January 14th, 2010 @ 8:16 am

    welcome aboard!!! great post.

  2. bking on January 14th, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    Welcome! glad you are here to help us out! I, too, spent a considerable amount of time looking at those maps. I thought some of the twilight maps were interesting – there were some areas I was surprised to see their strength.

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