In 2013, a group of researchers concluded in a journal article published in PLOS ONE that Wikipedia activity, including page views and how many times the article was edited, positively correlates with how well a movie does at the box office in its first weekend. In general, the more activity a movie’s Wikipedia page receives in the lead-up to its release, the more it does in ticket sales.
Could the same logic be applied to Netflix, which is notorious for withholding data on how many people are actually watching its shows?
Netflix has given us so much: Making a Murderer, Kevin Spacey’s attempt at a Southern accent, and a reason to stay in on Friday nights. But unlike programs that appear on cable, Netflix doesn’t publicize its ratings or viewership totals, leaving us with imprecise barometers of a show’s popularity. So even though The OA, the latest Netflix original, got a lot of hype on social media and in the press since premiering last week, for all we know it could be a dud among subscribers. (Netflix made an exception this summer when they let Nielsen reveal that 6.7 million people watched the premiere of the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black over the weekend it was released.)
Just like any budding relationship, before you commit yourself to a new show it’s normal to do some background research. Maybe you Google the show. In an ideal world, we’d use the raw search numbers from Google to measure how popular a Netflix program is, but data that granular isn’t available. However, Wikipedia, which is often one of the first search results, tracks daily page views on all of its entries. And unlike the software powering Symphony Advanced Media, a company that uses proprietary technology to estimate Netflix and Amazon streaming viewership, Wikipedia page views are available to anyone.
By comparing how often each show’s Wikipedia page was viewed over the weekend it premiered, we can get a sense for which Netflix series piqued the most interest in 2016. It’s not an exact science, but the intuition behind the idea is simple: If someone is curious enough to read a show’s Wikipedia page during the weekend it was released, it’s probably because they’re interested in watching at least the first episode.
The graph above depicts all the original Netflix series with Wikipedia pages viewed at least 100,000 times during the weekend that followed their premiere in 2016 (almost all of Netflix’s original shows are released on a Friday). Fuller House was a monster in its first weekend. From Feb. 26, the Friday it premiered on Netflix, through Feb. 28, it racked up 755,557 page views on Wikipedia. That’s more than a quarter of a million hits each day on average.
What is it about the internet’s favorite encylopedia that makes for a good proxy for a show’s popularity? The researchers who used Wikipedia activity in 2013 to predict box office success attributed it to the fact that users of the site are a special group of “committed followers” of the entertainment industry who take the time to gather information and engage with a subject. In other words, people who use Wikipedia have good, or at least popular, taste. In addition, since Wikipedia relies on crowdsourcing, it’s essentially a mirror for the “collective reaction of society to a cultural product,” the authors wrote.
Netflix did not respond to requests for comment as to whether the Wikipedia page views aligned with their own numbers.
Exclusively looking at page views on a show’s debut weekend only provides a glimpse of initial popularity. Some grow an audience only after word of mouth spreads. Wikipedia page views aren’t a perfect tool for estimating viewership, but barring a Christmas gift from Netflix in the form of a data dump, it’s an interesting proposition.