I hit the pause button roughly one-third of the way through the first episode of “House of Cards,” the political drama premiering on Netflix Feb. 1. By doing so, I created what is known in the world of Big Data as an “event” — a discrete action that could be logged, recorded and analyzed. Every single day, Netflix, by far the largest provider of commercial streaming video programming in the United States, registers hundreds of millions of such events. As a consequence, the company knows more about our viewing habits than many of us realize. Netflix doesn’t know merely what we’re watching, but when, where and with what kind of device we’re watching. It keeps a record of every time we pause the action — or rewind, or fast-forward — and how many of us abandon a show entirely after watching for a few minutes.
Netflix might not know exactly why I personally hit the pause button — I was checking on my sick son, home from school with the flu — but if enough people pause or rewind or fast-forward at the same place during the same show, the data crunchers can start to make some inferences. Perhaps the action slowed down too much to hold viewer interest — bored now! — or maybe the plot became too convoluted. Or maybe that sex scene was just so hot it had to be watched again. If enough of us never end up restarting the show after taking a break, the inference could be even stronger: maybe the show just sucked.