Last month, Netflix released its big Christmas movie, Bird Box. It’s a film about Sandra Bullock wearing a blindfold because she doesn’t want to look at a monster because if she does she will die. Sure. Bird Box. Almost immediately a couple of weird things happened.
The first weird thing was that Netflix revealed an actual viewership statistic, something the company does not normally do. “Took off my blindfold this morning to discover that 45,037,125 Netflix accounts have already watched Bird Box — best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film!” the company tweeted a few days after Christmas. That 45 million stat covers accounts that streamed at least 70 percent of the film, Netflix told the Verge, and does not count multiple viewings by a single account. Netflix has 137 million subscribers, so about a third have watched Bird Box.
The second weird thing that happened was that, almost immediately, social media seemed to become flooded with Bird Box memes. It happened so fast, in fact, that people suspected that Netflix had a legion of astroturfing accounts with next-to-no followers posting memes like “tfw you’re a bird in a box” (just made that up off the top of my head, not to brag) or similar.
Netflix denied any sort of clandestine meme campaign, and given how often fans have done gratis promotional work in the past, there’s not really a reason to doubt it.
What’s to account for Bird Box’s lofty viewership numbers? There were a lot of Bird Box memes, but generally speaking, memes don’t convert people into doing something they weren’t already inclined to do. They’re about as powerful as any other word of mouth. The number of viewers who saw a Bird Box meme and wanted to get in on the trend by clicking play is likely marginal. What I suspect matters more than anything else is the front page, the central hub that greets every Netflix user on the web and in apps.
Much energy has been spent analyzing Netflix’s impact on the film industry (it’s an at-home alternative to going to the theater) but Netflix also provides a sort of alternate version of the internet. It can be considered a more polished version of a streaming video site like YouTube or Facebook, both of which also fund the production of original programming. And it feels free: You pay for Netflix, but that subscription payment is virtually invisible; automatic and once a month, instead of à la carte. Unlike theater tickets, Netflix doesn’t really make you ask, “Is this worth the price?”
YouTube and Facebook have spent many recent months defending their algorithms — the recommendation software that decides what users see when they load up the app. Those black boxes, weighing dozens of different signals, customize the experience for each user and help guide them. For better or worse, they keep serving users things they want to see. Netflix’s recommendation software, on the other hand, sucks. For years, being unable to decide what to watch on Netflix has been a running gag, leading to a cottage industry of recommendation sites (try Netflix Roulette) and monthly lists of the service’s additions and removals.
That users rely on automated recommendations, more akin to browsing YouTube than going to a theater, gives Netflix a lot of power to steer viewer habits. Netflix has a strong financial incentive to promote its original programming over other movies and shows that it has licensed. The company’s well-known intention is to get to a position where most of its content is exclusive. The front page is a huge part of this, allowing Netflix to create a sort of monoculture by choosing what gets the top slot. The front page on Netflix is ostensibly customized for each viewer, but somehow, Netflix’s newest stuff always gets the top slot. This is not a unique phenomenon — popular web portals all face scrutiny for what they prioritize, whether it’s the top Google results for a query or the list of trending topics on Twitter. Apps featured on the front page of the iOS App Store reportedly see nine times more downloads than normal. Unlike social-media platforms though, Netflix does not need to pretend that its recommendations are unbiased. It’s not an information portal or a tool. Whatever the big new release is, that’s what get splashed full-width on the app’s front page.
In substantial ways, Netflix and YouTube occupy similar spaces on the internet. Not only do both drive online conversation, but they also create a stable of web celebrities. In October, Netflix bragged about how the Instagram followings of its teenage stars had grown exponentially since their programs debuted. That sort of behavior points to similar new-media ecosystems rooted in persistent, personality-based fandom, whether that’s for vloggers or scripted content. Bird Box, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Stranger Things: All of these and others have received and benefited from a social-media bump. But that doesn’t mean it was social media that turned these properties into successes. If there’s a clear indication of this, it’s that plenty of Netflix productions that have been claimed as successes for the company have also been critical and cultural flops. The Adam Sandler–led Ridiculous 6 was the top movie in every territory when it debuted on Netflix in 2015. Similarly, last year’s blockbuster-budgeted Bright was tracked at having at least 11 million viewers when it debuted (not a small number, at least compared to YouTube’s most popular stuff) and almost immediately had a sequel green-lit.
All of this is to say that Bird Box memes aren’t necessarily a result of a unique movie or title or imagery, or because people love Sandra Bullock, or to “join the conversation.” Imagine if YouTube or Facebook or Twitter decided to relentlessly promote its own interests as soon as you opened the app — you might take a look at that too. And maybe you’d post about it. The Bird Box chatter is, likely more than anything else, a result of humans exercising control over their enormously influential online platform, in order to tell people what they should focus on. Netflix doesn’t necessarily have a secret formula for viral pop culture. It’s just more willing to wield the vast influence it already has.