Netflix to IFLA: Huh?

So count me as +1 for the Netflix customers (or maybe the correct term in Netflix’s case is potential former customers) who are puzzled and disappointed by the company’s remarkably woozy strategic moves of late. I’d probably be outraged, actually, if I cared more about the service, but rerunning old movies just isn’t important enough to get especially emotional about it. But the summer certainly seems to have been too much for the corner-office gang over there.

They’ve lost or will soon lose big chunks of content over squabbles with competing providers. That poorly timed chunk taken out of the value they offer to customers more or less coincided with the announcement of a ~60% price increase for the offering of DVD delivery + streaming service that was their core product. Not the best combination, certainly, but more was yet to come! The autumn now brings yet a third customer smackdown from the company, as Netflix announced the complete separation of the two sides of its business.

The airy justifications based on different cost and production functions lack much traction, focused as they are on internal operations and ignorant as they seem of customers’ interactions with the service. One of the benefits was formerly the ability to find, evaluate, and select media products, with delivery mode being only one criterion. Casablanca is the same movie whether the data to play it is read from a DVD or over an internet connection, but now fans will have one more place to have to search to find the content they want in the desired format and with the right timing for their needs. No more single subcollection of products selected by a particular household or subscriber, now viewers will need to spend twice the time and effort to compile and update their lists, pay their bills, and otherwise manage their interaction with the company. Maybe the full story hasn’t been told, and some sort of internal politics made the move necessary or anyway advantageous for company insiders, but who cares? It’s indisputably a poke in the eye to those potential former customers.

It also delivers a backhand upside the head to information science as a whole, specifically the earnest people at IFLA. Maybe that insult isn’t enough to upset any but a select few in the library world, but it’s a significant blow to one of the key efforts to improve people’s access to information across the silos in which someone sometime thought it might best be stored. For a long time, IFLA members have toiled to develop the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records as a way to interconnect different records that give access to related materials. A content entity can be considered as a work in itself, the intellectual content, but we’re more used to thinking about specific expressions of a work, such as the movie with the title Casablanca directed by Michael Curtiz and produced by Warner Brothers in 1942.[1] The DVD and streaming versions once available from Netflix (if they offered that title via instant view) are just manifestations of that expression in particular formats. Records that acknowledge and operationalize these relationships can help link people to the particular items — the physical carriers of information — that embody the desired content. Which is to say, people get access to information. Hooray!

But in severing the connection between the records by which people access those two mere manifestations, Netflix treats them as de facto works, separate entities unto themselves with no relevance to one another. This move fragments the world of information just a little bit more. It widens those gaps that FRBR and IFLA work to span, and it pushes the newly separated resources out toward the long tail where they’re that much harder to find. No movie for you!

Librarians can lament the damage, or maybe they can learn a lesson and do better in their own treatment of media resources, in particular. I’ve heard a conference speaker chastise a roomful of ALA conference attendees because the profession was abandoning movie distribution to profit-driven players like Netflix, and the dysfunction recently introduced by the company validates that point. The marketers at that company may just say “Huh?” and completely ignore this issue, as they seem to have overlooked so much else. The movie records are proprietary company assets from their perspective, to be used and organized for its own best advantage.

Thing is, those records lose value in isolation, as so many potential former customers are now lamenting, because they’ll have to spend a lot of extra time managing information on the two isolated sites that they formerly could handle all at once. Along the same lines, those records could gain value via connection with others. How much better would Netflix listings be if enhanced by data from IMDb, Amazon, and all the other repositories of movie data? Users would gain a lot from that sort of interconnection, and all the repositories would benefit by reducing the amount of data they have to keep up to date. But the protective fences built around the records prevent that synergy, and the recent blunder by Netflix adds another silo to the already disjointed mess that movie lovers must navigate.

Really this sort of thing should be done right, and the library world can provide one set of voices for a better way. Of course, librarians might start by looking at their own resource access systems to see how many different databases and interfaces users have to consult and how many silos libraries themselves maintain that represent just the same sorts of obstacles to access. In such an audit, a library may discover that it hasn’t done enough to link its own records, and maybe it lacks the moral authority to chastise Netflix for that same rotten behavior toward users. Even then, the case provides a clear object lesson about what not to do, along with some motivation to improve service. Either way, librarians are supposed to be the ones who understand what’s at stake, and it’s part of their job to speak up in their own environments and the world at large in opposition to such dysfunctional fragmentation.

Update: Gee, ya think? “It is clear that for many of our members two websites would make things more difficult.” OK, so fragmentation & silos are bad, m’kay?

1. Groucho Marx apparently had a little fun with the work/expression distinction back then, when WB tried to treat him as a sort of IP pirate based on use of a place name in a title.