Last week, Netflix broke from years of tradition and revealed its top 10 most popular movies—complete with the number of how many people have streamed each title. It was interesting, both because it had never really happened before and because it allowed the general public to draw some theories about what kinds of content appeal to Netflix users the most (for example, most of the movies had a big-name star). The catch was that Netflix provided the ranking and the numbers itself, meaning there was no way to verify any of it, so the whole list was only slightly more informative than when Netflix insists that something is popular without providing any numbers at all (as it did in 2018 with Bright, a movie that didn’t even appear on the list despite how successful Netflix said it was). Interesting? Yes. Informative? Eh.
Now Netflix has decided to just go ahead and undermine its whole list, revealing—once again—why it doesn’t really mean anything when streaming platforms brag about how popular something is without backing it up. On Friday, Netflix tweeted out that Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard (starring Charlize Theron as a member of a team of immortal soldiers) is “already among the top 10 most popular Netflix films ever” and is “on track” to be streamed to 72 million users in its first four weeks on the site.
The Old Guard was not on the previous top 10 list, despite the fact that 72 million would put it just out of the top five, which means it either got 30 or 40 million views on a Thursday night somehow and rocketed up the list, or the list was wrong (or outdated) in the first place. So what was the point of it?
Well, advertising, obviously. In lieu of commercials, tweeting “Hey, this new thing has a famous star and it’s very popular!” must be a good way to drive people to specific content even if it slightly undermines what you were going for with your previous reference to popular things. It’s not that the numbers are necessarily wrong or that any of this is nefarious, it’s just useful to know what’s really going on here—which is to say that there’s basically nothing going on here at all.