Browse all articles

How Netflix Thumbnails Keep You Watching

Use this lesson plan to help students think critically about how Netflix hooks users.

Patrick Johnson | June 24, 2020

With the world spending more time indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's no surprise that more people than ever are tuning in to Netflix and other streaming services. But while the pandemic may be keeping people inside, it might be something else that keeps them binge-watching on Netflix.

For a long time, Netflix has developed clever tricks to engage viewers and keep them on the platform, watching show after show. One way they do this is through personalized features, like showing different users customized thumbnails for the same programs. This practice has been criticized for a number of reasons, including a belief that Netflix has used race to target content at users, misrepresenting what certain shows were actually about. Nevertheless, it's a strategy that probably works to keep viewers watching Netflix for hours on end.

This video and the discussion activity are a great way to get your students thinking about the tactics that Netflix and other media companies use to get their attention, and keep it. The video and activity will also help students consider how media companies use the data they collect from users.

Recommended for:

Grades: 8-12
Subjects: Arts, Digital Citizenship, Social Studies, ELA

Prep for teachers

In the classroom

Hook (8-10 minutes)

Before screening the video, give your students an essential question to focus their viewing: "How does Netflix influence what its users watch?" Ask them to consider all the tactics they think Netflix might be using, from showing different users personalized movie and TV show suggestions to custom thumbnails and trailers for different users. You might also ask students to guess what kinds of data Netflix collects from its users, and how they may be using that data. 

Because information about the coronavirus pandemic may be dominating the news, students may bring up that more people are watching simply for this reason. But challenge them to think about all the ways that Netflix -- and other streaming services -- may be working, as they always have been, to keep viewers watching.

Distribute copies of the worksheet and ask students to use it to take notes. Explain that they can answer the questions "I used to think … but now I think ... " at any point during and/or after viewing the video.

Show the video: "Why your Netflix thumbnails don't look like mine" from Vox.

Pressing play on the YouTube video will set third-party cookies controlled by Google if you are logged in to Chrome. See Google's cookie information for details.

Note: This video contains a small pop-up displaying a corporate sponsor's logo, and at the end of the video the host reads an advertisement for the sponsor.

Discussion (20 minutes)

Start off by asking students to share what they wrote down in their Connect, Extend, Challenge notes. What connections did they make? How did the video take their thinking in new directions? What is still challenging or confusing to them? 

Then, focus the conversation on the ethics of Netflix's practice of personalizing recommendations and content to different users. It may be helpful for students to brainstorm what factors contribute to their own decisions to watch new programs on Netflix, Hulu, or other streaming services. Continue the discussion using any or all of the questions below:

  • Were you surprised to learn that different users see different thumbnails?
  • Should Netflix be more upfront about how they choose artwork for viewers?
  • How concerned are you about the data that companies like Netflix collect from you?
  • Is it worth sacrificing some privacy for better recommendations?
  • Does this practice potentially hinder users' ability to discover new programs?

Possible follow-ups:

  • Teach the lesson "Can Media Be Addictive?" from our Digital Citizenship Curriculum.
  • Reflection activity: If your students have Netflix accounts, ask them to log in and observe the thumbnails they're being presented with for various shows and movies. Students can record their observations and consider how their viewing history (and other user data) may influence what they see.