Content has become mundane and unexceptional as a result of personalized recommendations on Netflix and Spotify. Is there anything we can do about it?

Ian Schafer
Award-winning global brand, marketing, advertising, and sports & entertainment entrepreneur and executive.

We Are Algorithm-ing
Ourselves Into a


In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked at Miramax Films. The company was successful because they perfected the art of mining for undiscovered gems, films like Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotapes—something weird enough to generate lots of buzz, but accessible enough to appeal to a sizable audience, allowing it to stay in theaters long enough to gross tens of millions of dollars on a shoestring budget. Miramax’s business model was part of a robust independent film industry wherein offbeat approaches to movie-making and going against the grain was profitable. Producing early movies from visionary directors like Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers, who would later establish themselves as some of the all-time greats, were low-risk investments with the potential for a handsome reward. And so, all sorts of art was able to flourish.

Today’s media landscape doesn’t allow for this kind of creative innovation. Instead, platforms like Netflix and Spotify rely on personalization algorithms that deliver viewers content based on what they, and people like them, have already consumed. This technology favors big-budget movies and TV shows with superstars, franchises, and anything that has the potential to appeal to the largest audience possible. Whatever has the maximum chance of the maximum number of people pressing play is greenlit. Unconventional projects are less likely to get produced, in spite of their small budgets, because they don’t necessarily comport with what the algorithm suggests viewers want. So we get the same stories told over and over again in the most conventional way possible. Our strange and beautiful world, with its millions of peculiar and idiosyncratic artists and its billions of thoughtful and curious consumers, has become a monoculture. Everything looks the same. We seldom have the opportunity to discover pieces of culture that challenge how we understand the world and ourselves.

Today’s media landscape doesn’t allow for this kind of creative innovation.

The prevalence of streaming makes it feel like we have more choice than ever—there is a surfeit of content produced by Netflix, Disney, Apple, Amazon, Paramount, Warner Bros. Discovery, and NBCUniversal exclusively for their streaming services, and it all runs together, slick, big budget, with familiar characters and tropes. Studios are also producing fewer movies for theatrical release, most of them big-budget affairs, which puts tremendous pressure on every single one of them to turn a huge profit. What gets greenlit has little to do with art or quality—it’s actuarial science. There isn’t the same amount of artistic risk-taking that there used to be, and so everything is mass-market.

There used to be mechanisms that allowed the biggest hits to support projects that fell outside of the mainstream. Back in the days of cable bundles, for example, the consumer paid one subscription fee to access an assortment of channels. Bundling mainstream content with the countercultural allowed channels like IFC and Adult Swim to exist. The streaming business model ripped it all apart, making it much more difficult for niche productions to get funded.

These days, when something new is able to break through, it tends to get exploited, not rewarded. An artist can make something new or different, and if it finds a big enough audience, it takes approximately one millisecond before it’s been imitated and reproduced into oblivion by megacorporations. SHEIN, the Chinese online fast-fashion behemoth, has become the biggest fashion retailer in the world precisely because the company is able to copy the latest trends and get it into their stores quicker than designers can design new things. What companies like SHEIN do is exploitation in every sense of the word: they exploit somebody else’s designs for their own economic gain, and they exploit the environment to produce their imitations as cheaply and quickly as possible.

Our monoculture hasn’t just made culture and pop culture less interesting; it’s become a central plot point within the biggest hits of our era. The story arcs of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes both have to do with the idea of a multiverse, not because it’s a compelling narrative device, but because the studios need a way to tie the Sony Spider-man movies into the Marvel universe that Disney built. It’s a commercial explanation for the vast web of IP that the studios have spun, not an artistic one. Writers, directors, and artists are forced to become entrepreneurs; economic factors shape the soul of their work as much, if not more, than creativity, experimentation, and personal expression.

Our monoculture hasn’t just made culture and pop culture less interesting; it’s become a central plot point within the biggest hits of our era.

Money has the tendency to ruin art, and this isn’t a new phenomenon. The internet’s impact on the way we consume media and buy products has simply amplified the worst tendencies of the media conglomerates that hold total authority over what we consume. They’ve optimized and algorithm-ed art into something featureless. The writers and actors currently striking aren’t worried about artificial intelligence taking their jobs for no reason; the type of media being produced is so uniform and soulless that it’s a legitimate concern.

This all sounds very dire. But not all hope is lost! There are weird independent movies being made, and some of them manage to achieve commercial success. Most recently, Everything Everywhere All At Once, the trippy action-adventure romp starring Michelle Yeoh, netted over $100 million, won seven Oscars, and has become, per IGN, the “most-awarded” film of all-time. It received a total of 158 accolades, and it deserved every single one of them. It is, nevertheless, very much a movie born from our modern era, a play on the notion of the multiverse, an inventive pastiche of the superhero movies that have taken over the movie industry over the last 15 years.


The production companies around today that use the same business model as Miramax, small fish compared to Disney and Netflix, are still taking artistic risks and they are paying off. Blumhouse, the company behind some of this decade’s biggest horror hits like Get Out, Paranormal Activity, and M3GAN, regularly produces weird, badass, low-budget fare without big stars and multimillion budgets, and they are thriving. A24 is a company doing similar things in the world of independent films, and has given us Everything Everywhere All At Once, Midsommar, Uncut Gems, Moonlight, and Ex Machina. Both media operations deliver work that tells new stories in visually interesting ways, and their success proves that viewers are still hungry to consume new narratives that aren’t part of the monoculture.

Media exists to entertain us, comfort us, delight us, frighten us, evoke a spectrum of untapped emotions, and give us new experiences and ideas to talk about with our friends and loved ones. The monoculture that the algorithm has forged is eliminating the potential for discovery, surprise, and expansion of our understanding of the world. There isn’t much an individual can do to change the system; we have to challenge ourselves to break free from the endless optimization and remember that there are still new experiences to be found if you look hard enough.

Do you agree with this?
Do you disagree or have a completely different perspective?
We’d love to know


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