Truth Is Just Perception

Content Creation Should Not Be Dictated By Consumers

The general public offers no guarantee of quality or originality.

Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings stressed at the Code conference that his teams do not use their subscribers usage data to influence the creation of the shows they broadcast (see the video of his interview below). Netflix has mastered the art of studying how users consume videos on its platform and improve its service based on what these studies reveal. Still, in the eyes of Reed Hastings, user data should have zero influence on content creation.

He told a story to make his point. It relates to the Netflix original series “House of Cards” produced by David Fincher who also directed the first two episodes. Usage data collected by Netflix showed that a large number of subscribers had stopped watching the pilot show during the introductory scene in which Frank Underwood, the character played by Kevin Spacey, kills a dog. When Hastings showed this data to Fincher, the director, who is not used to having such information about his feature films, kindly asked him to never do that again.

Consistent with his strategy in this area, Hastings did not have the slightest intention to influence the development of the series. Anyway, this would have been useless. Netflix subscribers who couldn’t stand the dog’s killing wouldn’t have enjoyed the rest of the series in which Underwood is the perfect villain. Cutting the controversial opening scene would have meant softening Underwood’s character, which, in turn, would have killed the series itself.

The shows produced by Netflix don’t have a huge success because they appeal to everyone. Indeed, some believe that you can please everybody by using consumer data to influence content creation. But, even Amazon, which tests their show ideas with the public before producing them, doesn’t always appeal to a large audience.

In my view, the same principle applies to journalism.

It turns out that a few days before Reed Hastings’ interview at the Code conference, Evan Hansen, senior editor at blog publishing platform Medium, explained that the pay-per-view model they had been using to compensate their authors was not working. In particular, paying for clicks “failed to support some really terrific contributors” since “high quality posts do not automatically garner attention and audience commensurate with the effort of producing them.” Medium will now experiment a compensation model based on the total time spent by web users on an article rather than the number of clicks it gets.

The explanations given by Reed Hastings and Evan Hansen strengthen my conviction that consumers should not dictate, or even influence, content creation, be it in arts or journalism.

My conviction is based on two ideas:

  • We can apply to content creation what Steve Jobs said about product development: People don’t know what they want.
  • We can apply to content creation the famous advertising saying: You don’t create an original, qualitative ad in committee. As in advertising, you have to alienate some of the audience to appeal to another part. Trivial content is worthless.

Although the public is the ultimate judge, it can’t be the ultimate content creator.

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