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Netflix - Recommended by a Friend

What Are Good Friends for? Perhaps for Recommending DVD's

Published: December 30, 2004

ALTHOUGH Netflix is the unquestioned leader of the online DVD rental business, and is known for its innovative recommendation engine, some subscribers still find it hard to navigate its more than 25,000 titles in search of movies they want to watch.

With that in mind, the company has begun testing a feature called Netflix Friends, which lets users share movie reviews and recommendations directly and automatically with selected friends. The service is scheduled to become available to all 2.5 million Netflix users next month. (Right now, because the program is in trial, you have to be invited by someone taking part in the test.)

Essentially, Netflix is trying its own form of the social networking made popular by sites like Friendster and Netflix Friends works by letting members invite other members to join their network.

The system works in two directions. Once a network of friends is created, each person in it can view the ratings and comments of others about specific films. Each member of a network can also share ratings and comments about movies with any or all of the others in the network. The more films each member sees and rates, the more value each brings to the network.

"My hope is that recommendations from friends will have more weight and meaning for me," said Omar Khan, a San Francisco e-business consultant. "It's made me do the ratings more, because if I like a movie, it'll make me want my friend to like it as well."

Other users agree that making Netflix's system more personal is a good way of getting people more involved and thus bringing Netflix more business.

"Most of my friends are Netflix members, and this adds that whole social layer that was missing," said Duncan Carling, a Web developer in San Francisco. "My friends and I used to share our queues and our rental histories over e-mail, but seeing friends' histories wasn't useful because you didn't know what they thought of the movie."

Shernaz Daver, Netflix's vice president for corporate communications, points out that while people within a single Netflix Friends network can see information about others' movie preferences, that's as far as it goes. Unlike the Friendsters of the world, which connect friends to friends and friends to friends of friends, Netflix's system stops at one degree of separation, ensuring members' privacy, she said.

While Netflix Friends does not have many core features of a social networking service - connecting people through intermediaries, for example, or helping with dating and business connections - some feel that it belongs in the same category.

Judith Meskill, who writes and maintains the Social Software Weblog (, a Web log about social networking, said Netflix Friends was a good example of a company's using social networking for a new business purpose.

"It is very social-networking-oriented within its context," Ms. Meskill said, "which is what I and a number of other social software geeks have been saying: Social networking will survive well with a substantial context."

In any case, the test of any new feature is whether it serves its purpose. And to Mr. Carling, Netflix Friends has.

He said that in the few weeks since he joined the Netflix Friends service, he had rented 10 to 15 movies - like "Donnie Darko," an offbeat, low-budget 2001 film that has won a belated following on DVD - solely on the recommendation of members of his network.

"I have seen some movies that I really liked that I don't think I would have seen otherwise," Mr. Carling said. "And for the most part, I haven't been disappointed by anything."

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