We just rejoined Netflix after several years away from it. While recreating preferences and ratings on a fresh account, we noticed something surprising: Netflix doesn’t allow a user to judge things as “just ok.” Take a look at the tool-tip explanations for their five-star ratings:
Netflix’s recommendation system is generally considered its most valuable asset, so much so that the company sponsored $1 million prize to improve it. Yet, I wonder how much expectation factors into predictions of user ratings.
In particular, I find many films to be “pretty good” or “just OK.” These are the movies I didn’t mind watching but don’t need to watch ever again. They are the films that I “enjoyed” in terms of their delivery of a satisfactory movie-watching experience, but not necessarily for their artistic or expressive merit. How do I rate such movies?
My instinct tells me that I should rate them 3 stars out of 5, right in the middle of the range. But Netflix tells me that 3 stars means “liked it,” while 2 stars is already “didn’t like it.” I need something in-between.
I suppose one might counter that the textual descriptions of the star ratings system have nothing to do with the statistical analysis of their results or the prediction algorithms that manipulate such data into recommendations. But that’s not true if consistency matters, either within a single user’s ratings or across users. If I’m using 3 stars to mean “just OK” at some times and “liked it” at others, then I’m poisoning the statistical well. Likewise, if I’m using 3 stars to mean “pretty good” all of the time but another user is using it for “liked it” all of the time, then recommendations made across our viewing patterns could be inaccurate.
Technical matters aside, I find it odd that Netflix would think I could only love, like, or hate films. I re-subscribed partly to take advantage of streamed rentals on Xbox Live, since it doesn’t require waiting for discs in the mail. In such cases, it’s not always required that I pass aesthetic judgement on the films I watch. It might be enough that their images and sounds simply reach my retinas and eardrums, successfully elapsing 90-120 minutes.
In this respect, the idea of an instant queue is already odd. But the notion that I should feel obligated to like, love, or hate something in such a case misconstrues a major mode of film-watching, and perhaps of being itself.
What Netflix doesn’t support is a sense of “meh,” that term for indifference made meme by the Simpsons a decade ago. The Italians have their own version, “boh” (or sometimes “buh”), which means roughly the same thing, but has a rounder, more definitive sound to it.
Consider the episode of the Simpsons that popularized “meh” (season 12’s Hungry Hungry Homer). The family visits Blockoland, a theme park of anonymous slabs.
Homer: (after watching Blockoland commercial) All right, kids … who wants to go … to … Blockoland?
Bart and Lisa: Meh.
Homer: But the commercial gave me the impression that …
Bart: We said meh.
Lisa: M-E-H. Meh.
Many, from Benjamin Zimmer in his essay on the word to the Collins English Dictionary in their entry for it, misunderstand “meh” as a term of disapproval. Zimmer and others have also tried to connect the term to the Yiddish slang “feh,” an interjection of mild disgust usually accompanied by a dismissive hand-gesture. But all of these accounts miss the truly ambiguous wonder into which “meh” has evolved.
While “meh” may seem to imply disapproval or disinterest, it is actually a sophisticated response of veneration, a celebration of something’s ability to be a part of the anonymous formlessness philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy calls “whatever.” Bodies for Nancy spread outward rather than cohering, like a bag of gummi bears on a summer afternoon. Here we can see a relation to Heidegger too, for whom being withdraws, and when pushed even further, to Graham Harman’s understanding that all objects withdraw from relation.
It is convenient that “whatever,” in English anyway, also denotes the kind of apathy we associate with “meh.” But meh is more like Nancy’s whatever than like ours: rather than isolating a single example as wanting, it underscores the indelible anythingness of being.
Meh is an expression of impassivity, one that signals neither apathy nor boredom, but something that sits on the razor’s edge between the two. Meh is nonchalance instead of rejection, meh is apassion instead of dispassion. Meh is an affectionate detachment. Meh is moving on. Meh is a zest of blandness. Meh is warm but not luke. Meh deadpans. Meh is the water on the rock, the wind on the sail, the tube on the toothpaste.
When thought of this way, to “meh” is to express the sublime, but not in Kant’s sense of a dominion over us. This sublimity is one of a level playing field, of a flat ontology, to use Levi Bryant’s term. It is a mundane sublime, one that is better characterized by Stephen Shore than by Ansel Adams. Following Harman, meh reminds us of the world’s insatiable ability to be so much and so many, all at once, whether as riverstones, as fur, as Fiat 500s, or as romantic comedies. It is a magnificent blandness that breaks star rating systems entirely. O Netflix, let me slouch and mutter it, without exclamation point, “meh.”!