The contest didn't just catch the attention of college students with time to kill: An hour east of Princeton, in Middletown, New Jersey, the Netflix Prize announcement caught the eye of Chris Volinsky, head of a statistics research group at AT&T, and his team, who regularly read blogs to see what was going on in the emerging data science world. "This was before 'Big Data,'" he tells me, and therefore a Big Deal. He pulled his group together and asked who wanted to poke around at the data set. He didn't know the contest would stretch on for years.
Hobbyists, academics, and professionals weren't just drawn to the contest by the potential payday. The revelations were just as enticing; because the winners would retain ownership of their work, a contestant like Volinsky could also pitch management at AT&T on devoting time and resources to the project. (The rules of the contest only stipulated that the winning team would have to license its work non-exclusively to Netflix.) Most importantly, the data was just plain interesting: an unruly mess of insights into taste, behavior, and pre-streaming viewer psychology. As Chris Volinsky put it, "Everyone likes movies."