Make Netflix Great Again: Member Reviews Reveal Backlash Against Spanish-Language Content

'Ricardo OFarril Abrazo Navideño'

“I speak English. When I come here I did not pay to hear a foreign language and will not read subtitles.” There’s a lot packed into this two sentence review of Ricardo O’Farrill’s Netflix stand-up special Abrazo navideño. And while I was happy to see that only “1 out of 10 members found this review useful,” I couldn’t shake the fact that its blustering pride and knee-jerk isolationism spoke to the new Trumpian world we’re living in.

Indeed, I didn’t need to look far to find another example that spelled out the hatred that a mere Netflix recommendation had inspired in several unnamed users. Some opted for crass and grammatically-challenged missives: “super disappointed Netf*cks. If that is your real name. i was like cool a new stand up. but here we have more of this spanish bullsh*t. translate this crap. you have the money.” Others went for more insidiously polite versions of the same: “Nothing against spanish or its speakers, but give it its own area!” And then, of course, I found one with conservatives’ favorite term to dismiss the left: politically correct.

Someone should probably remind this member that, actually, the United States does not have an official language. Nevertheless, the main argument does speak to a decidedly new aspect of Netflix’s agenda: to go global.

The streaming service that once vanquished Blockbuster to the dustbin of ’90s history with its red envelopes, and later set its sights on HBO with its slew of edgy and critically acclaimed fare, is now intent on becoming the first truly global network. It’s what’s led them to create globetrotting series like Sense8, Spanish-language fare like Club de Cuervos, and ambitious international dramas like Marco Polo and Narcos. It’s not a matter of being “politically correct.” It’s just good business.

By the end of the summer Netflix went live in 130 countries (bringing their total to 190). That is, to be sure, uncharted territory. The global potential of the company was, as CEO Reed Hastings put it while announcing the expansion at CES this year, “both a joy and a challenge to fulfill.” Part of the challenge lay, as Ben Popper of The Verge explained back in February of 2016, in the recommendations algorithm which has become such an integral part of the Netflix model. As those colorful comments we’ve highlighted show, there are still hurdles to be overcome, ones which come with some problems when catering to an already diverse crowd in the giant market that is the United States.

“While taste patterns travel globally, ultimately people are most likely to enjoy content presented in a language they understand.”

As the Netflix engineers put it in a blog post ahead of the global launch, the recommendations model somewhat depends on offering users content that most adheres to their own cultural sensibilities. That’s why one of their key challenges was making sure their algorithms work well around the world, ensuring they can capture local variations in taste. “We know that even with the same catalog worldwide we would not expect a video to have the exact same popularity across countries,” they wrote, concluding that overall, they “would expect Argentine members should be recommended more Argentine Cinema and Indian members more Bollywood.” On the surface this seems like a commonsensical approach and one which no doubt is backed up by gathered user-data.

The same principle held when they discussed the language-related issues that come from an endeavor that aims to be both global in scope and local in flavor. “While taste patterns travel globally, ultimately people are most likely to enjoy content presented in a language they understand.” Thus, while there may be a great French Sci-Fi film that you, a Sci-Fi lover living in U.S. would really enjoy, Netflix won’t recommend it to you unless it has English subs or dubs. The problem, of course, is that currently Netflix has no way of knowing what languages you are fluent in. Or, if we are to follow the logic of the commenters above, how receptive you even are to engaging in content that isn’t in your own native tongue. After all, if you can read English fine, Netflix can’t really anticipate that you find subtitles to be so abhorrent to you that you’d go out of your way to decry a recommendation for even suggesting you “hear” a foreign language.

This is why that comment on O’Farrill’s stand up special struck a chord with me. It went further than merely saying the set was bad (which other users did write in otherwise perfectly reasonable negative reviews posted on the site) or just a bad fit (there are several reviews that aptly point out that language in translation in a comedy might be an issue): it argued that the American version of Netflix should have anticipated that Americans should only be offered English-language content. It’s an argument I saw in many other Spanish-language Netflix shows though even as many other users lauded the streaming service for providing these types of recommendations across the board.

You can hear it in their tone, they want to Make Netflix Great Again.

But if Netflix’s algorithms were to be as fine-tuned as their engineers would liked them to be (“The ultimate goal of our recommendation system is to know the exact perfect show for the member and just start playing it when they open Netflix”), these grouchy users would never be exposed, let alone encouraged to check out content that exists so clearly outside of their purview. What these comments point to is a desire to be carefully isolated and coddled in a bubble of their own making, one which requires as little thinking out of their own experience as possible.

They may not be saying it in so many words, but you can hear it in their tone, they want to Make Netflix Great Again. And while it’s clear the streaming giant is otherwise happily courting international and multilingual costumers everyday, adding more and more foreign-language options to your queue, these comments should remind us that xenophobia is alive and well. So next time you fire up an episode of Celia or La reina del sur (both now available on the site!), or finally get around to catching stand up specials by Sofía Niño de Rivera or Carlos Ballarta, make a point of rating them highly if you enjoy them. Because fighting Trumpism can be both about volunteering and donating to worthy causes but also about making it clear that this country’s culture need not and will not be defined by what angry white Anglo people like and enjoy.