In a pandemic-stricken world where human interactions occur almost entirely online, social media and the internet have taken on an even bigger role in our lives.
The Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” released in January 2020 and directed by Jeff Orlowski attempts to be a whistleblower in the way we interact with technology on a daily basis.
The 1.5-hour film describes the commercial nature of any use of social media. Businesses like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Google exist to make a profit, and with apps available for free like these, the product being sold is not the app itself, but rather your attention. The more time you spend on the app, the more ads you see and the more money they make.
The point the film makes is not only extremely valid, but relevant. Yet the way the film conveys this information obscures their message and the possibility of any real change in the way our lives online operate.
The main issue identified by the film is the power these social media companies have over our daily lives and the disregard they have for the moral responsibility that comes with it.
This is illustrated by interviews with the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Shoshana Zuboff, as well as with former employees of the companies criticized, including the former vice president of growth of Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya. Interviews with members of these societies add validity to their statements and reduce doubts in the viewer’s mind as to the intentions of these societies.
Yet such a set of accomplished interviewees with extremely similar views on social media influence not only made the film a note, but also succeeded in alienating its audience.
The main flaw of “The Social Dilemma” is the way it tries to influence its viewers. The majority of the film is devoted to explaining why social media is bad and asking people to delete their accounts. With this in mind, the responsibility for this issue lies with the individual users of these platforms. The film makes a powerful criticism against social media as a source of information, but fails to recognize the necessity that it has become in the lives of so many people.
The documentary film is regularly interspersed with moments from the life of a fictional family, whose tech-addicted son is used as a tool to demonstrate our wider societal affliction. This subplot contributes to the condescending tone of the film and is utterly unnecessary in the collective mission it proposes to create a world in which Facebook and Google do not own our psyche.
Additionally, the film personifies the computer algorithm of Ben, the family’s teenage son, in a weak attempt to make the docu-drama a little more interesting. In doing so, he completely loses any fear factor that would have ever made this fictional scenario a powerful choice to begin with. The claim of three men monitoring people 24 hours a day, seven days a week and controlling their lives through alerts on their phones is frightening. However, any true translation to reality involves the loss of these three human brains and with it any significant concern.
“The Social Dilemma” manages to redeem itself marginally in the last minutes. Under the final credits, these same experts offer solutions to the problem they spent the last hour and a half explaining. Here, they finally propose to “deactivate the notifications” or to “lobby your congressmen to regulate this industry”.
The documentary argues that social media needs corporate regulation as much as the auto production industry. Legislation that imposed taxes on the information companies collect and store about individuals is something the vast majority of people would support. This is one of the film’s most legitimate arguments, but it only comes in the last few minutes. If you stop watching even a moment before the end credits, you would have missed it.
Ultimately, the problems with “The Social Dilemma” were similar to the problems faced in many of the same companies as the film’s critics. As with climate change, poverty, body image issues and mass incarceration, the default is to blame individuals. Meanwhile, Facebook emitted 252,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2019, and Google customer service representatives earn less than the Massachusetts minimum wage for 2021.
So turn off your notifications, advocate taxation on long-term personal data storage, and don’t waste your time on this poorly constructed documentary.