The Netflix documentary, The social dilemmaa, illustrates the rise of social media and personalized online services. Deeply unnerving, it shows us not only their power over each of us, but also their damage to society.
Although it is a documentary, the truths are revealed with the help of a fictional plot. We follow the teenager Ben (Skyler Gisondo), who falls under the spell of an algorithm (Vincent Karteiser). We can tell how it is said that, if sought to, he could drop his phone. Yet instead, and much to the chagrin of her older sister (Kara Hayward), social media is gradually helping her head towards the “extreme center”.
But the plot is only secondary. The real messengers are Tim Kendall, former president of Pinterest (and director of monetization at Facebook), Justin Rosenheimer, inventor of the “Like” button, and a whole bunch of other really, really big fish. Testimonials from these experts – ranging from the co-creators of Google Drive to the author of ‘You are not a gimmick‘ – are as personal as they are alarming.
That the big social media and tech companies don’t offer their services for free is no news to anyone. After all, “[if] you are not paying for the product, you are the product”. But it’s not just that they sell your data. The creators of the platforms explain that it’s not really about getting to know you – your data isn’t worth that much – but about changing you. Goals are those little changes that happen to you that make you more likely to keep scrolling, more likely to buy a product. “We want to psychologically understand how to manipulate you as quickly as possible.”
The most alarming element is not just the facts. It’s seeing fear among the creators of Facebook, Google and co. – some of whom have since left the respective companies. When even the people who helped build the rigs, who know them and their goals better than any outsider can ever hope, are worried, how not to be?
But the sick feeling in your stomach after watching The social dilemma is not really fear. It’s a much more sober concern about the implication of these massive tools of public manipulation for democracy. It is a worry about the growing division of our society, the rapid spread of fake news, without our realizing it. It is a concern about the massive power held in the hands of a few powerful, unelected individuals.
That non-fiction can be dramatic is nothing new to director Jeff Orloski. In 2014, his award-winning documentary chasing the ice visualized the terrifying effects of the climate crisis. Yet in The social dilemma, he didn’t seem quite ready to let the power of facts and narrative speak for itself. Instead, the music, bass, and cuts made it less of a classic documentary and more of an action movie. But instead of increasing the intensity, this forced dramatization took away the impact of the testimonies themselves. That the short-term joy of a “like” is based on near-withdrawal symptoms for the remaining period of time has far more impact than bombastic music.
In place, The social dilemma could have spent a bit more time presenting possible solutions. Yes, it reminded me to be critical about my own social media consumption. It reminded me to not only ask if it makes me happy, but also to ask if those emotions might be the product of algorithm engineering. And I would definitely recommend The social dilemma to anyone looking for the tools to better understand and question their own behavior.
But, if I’m being honest, it doesn’t seem enough to just give people ten reasons to delete their social media accounts. As long as start-ups and organizations continue to be run on Facebook, this cannot and will not be a viable option for everyone. The social dilemma stresses that social media is far from being a purely private phenomenon. It’s political. And as long as we live in a democracy, it’s up to us, not a few individuals in Silicon Valley, to decide how we want to use these powerful tools.
Image credit: Photo by Jacob Owens on Unsplash