Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Napoleon Dynamite Problem

The DVD rental service Netflix has a problem. Its "recommendation engine", which suggests movies to its customers is at the core of its business model. This "engine" uses customer's ratings of rentals to generate suggestions for titles they might enjoy. The mathematical algorithms that it uses have gotten better over the years and for the most part the suggestions are quite good. However, there are a handful of films that defy prediction and are impeding Netflix's progress in improving its service. The most notorious is Napoleon Dynamite.

The NYTimes published a detailed article on the The Napoleon Dynamite Problem and Netflick's open contest to improve its recommendation engine. The prize is $1 Million.If You Liked This, You’re Sure to Love That

NYTimes excerpt:
Bertoni says it’s partly because of “Napoleon Dynamite,” an indie comedy from 2004 that achieved cult status and went on to become extremely popular on Netflix. It is, Bertoni and others have discovered, maddeningly hard to determine how much people will like it. When Bertoni runs his algorithms on regular hits like “Lethal Weapon” or “Miss Congeniality” and tries to predict how any given Netflix user will rate them, he’s usually within eight-tenths of a star. But with films like “Napoleon Dynamite,” he’s off by an average of 1.2 stars.

The reason, Bertoni says, is that “Napoleon Dynamite” is very weird and very polarizing. It contains a lot of arch, ironic humor, including a famously kooky dance performed by the titular teenage character to help his hapless friend win a student-council election. It’s the type of quirky entertainment that tends to be either loved or despised. The movie has been rated more than two million times in the Netflix database, and the ratings are disproportionately one or five stars.

1 comment:

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