Is ‘The social dilemma’ revealing truths or inciting fear?

The Social Dilemma is a new documentary drama now streaming on Netflix directed by Jeff Orlowski. It explores ‘the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.’ I watched it, and I didn’t like it.

Educating yourself about social media is the smart thing to do

I personally believe that it’s really important that if a person is using social media, that they are not doing so completely blindly. A person should understand that what they see when they open a social media app is tailored to them, and that even though they have not handed over money, they’re not really using it for free.

You would hope that after events in recent years such as elections, protests and even Brexit, that the general population would be more aware that we all exist in our own echo chambers. Whether it’s the auto-complete Google search terms explained in this documentary, or the news stories appearing in your Facebook feed, you’re probably seeing what you want to see – or what you think you want to see.

The sad reality, however, is that history continues to repeat itself. Taking the time to read a wide array of news from different places, half of which is probably going to offend you in some way, is just too much effort for most people. So when a documentary like this appears, of course I’m excited to see our everyday technologies explained in a way that everyone can understand.

Generational scare-mongering or a needed wake up call?

When I went to look at the reviews for this documentary, I thought it was particularly important to understand who the reviewers were. For example, have they been tasked with reviewing anything similar in the past? Did they grow up with this technology or are they somewhat older?
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the high praise often came from older journalists who broadly review films and documentaries. The tech journalist reviews were a smaller percentage and could only be found several pages deep into Google reviews. Meanwhile, the younger journalists, often writing for publications aimed at younger readers, tended to have harsher things to say about the documentary overall. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a hard line, but it was interesting to see that the digital natives among the reviewers didn’t seem to agree that the technology they used had only ruined their lives.

I do take this as a somewhat good thing, in the hope that Millenials and younger generations are a bit more clued into the true nature of social media already. Perhaps though, as young people seemed to be the heaviest target of the drama parts of this film, they are also the most likely to be offended.

To be honest, I feel like that’s fair. It’s not true to say that people aged 35 plus aren’t on their phones as much as their free time allows them to be, the same as anyone else. In my line of work, it’s the middle-aged and older people who I see spreading misinformation or picking fights in the comments on Facebook. And seeing as older generations seemed to gain the most information from this documentary, we can assume that they are also using social media the most naively. Sure, older generations are briefly mocked by the teenagers portrayed in the dramatic scenes of the film, but they’re not included in any of the scenes of addiction spiralling out of control.

It’s disappointing to me, therefore, that this film has acted as both a wake-up call and an added incentive for older generations to talk down to younger ones about their technology use. The teenagers portrayed can’t vote, don’t have a career in tech. If we should take anything away from this film, it’s that a bunch of middle-aged, mostly male tech nerds that are to blame, not the people who are growing up with a piece of technology that hasn’t been designed with their best interests at heart.

Getting an expert opinion

The reviews on this documentary are pretty varied, but any unflattering reviews are quick to point out that none of the experts featured in the actual documentary half of the film are currently working at Facebook, Google, or any of the companies in the firing line. The experts are all ex-employees and therefore more likely to be damning of the company that they’ve just left. And most notably, when pressed to offer us a way forward from our current tech dilemmas, no one seems to have a realistic solution.

The success of the documentary shows that this isn’t all old news that they’re telling us and that it’s important to learn, but I’m not sure that this knowledge has actually empowered us. The most common answer is to ‘unplug’, but how many people do you know who watched this documentary and then actually deleted their social media accounts? Especially during a global pandemic (I appreciate that this documentary was created before coronavirus when we were still free to roam where we wanted), how realistic is it for us to move away from social media? What is our alternative way to feel easily connected? Zoom parties and nightly phone calls have proven themselves to be too exhausting to work long term, so then what?

On top of that, the lack of any statement from some marketing person speaking on behalf of the social networks being discussed, or any interview with current employees, just leaves me feeling like the filmmakers didn’t try hard enough to make this film feel truly balanced. As much as the experts interviewed truly do know their stuff and have a lot to teach us, they all seem to fit the agenda quite neatly.

Don’t be a drama queen, Jeff

I guess the director is trying to use the drama half of this film to show how these large scale schemes cooked up by social networks to generate profits actually affect us. But the problem is, it is in fact a dramatization and not a real family that we’re watching. It’s a hammy, turned up to 11, version of reality that shows individuals being plunged deep into wherever the algorithm wants to send them. Kind of ironically leading, actually.

One of my key issues with this portrayal is that the teenagers are shown to have no outside influences and to purely be driven by what’s on the screen and by some ominous power showing them curated content. Surely, even if they have very few friends, these kids are still following people from their schools on these social networks? Surely even if they’re not having the conversations in person, they’re still having them online, or viewing their peer’s opinions online? What is this endless vacuum of extreme politicized media and gamified selfie uploads (something that gen Z-ers now mock millennials for anyway, if you were paying attention Orlowski) portrayed here? Does anyone else find these depictions unrealistic, or is this a reflection of my own algorithm-led sense of reality?

I’m not even sure that I’m trying to sound optimistic about the impact of these outside and real-world influences, I’m just saying that they do exist. And maybe if social networks would actually function a little more like social networks, the internet wouldn’t seem like such a scary place.

The real social dilemma

The sad thing is, there are important nuggets of information in this documentary, but it just feels like they’re devalued by everything else. The film might be a conversation starter, but sadly that film doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.

Yes, we are moving from information to disinformation. Yes, there are real-world, sometimes life-threatening, consequences to fake news. Yes, the gamification of the way we interact with each other online can have a serious negative impact on our mental health.

But what about when people connect through social media in a positive way? The USA took a stand against racism this year. News spread uncontrollably fast and thousands of people took to the streets. Sure, some of those people started fires and did bad things, but most of them just wanted the world to know that they wanted to see an end to racism in their homes. And if they couldn’t attend a protest, they could share resources, petitions, real news footage. We’re still feeling the effects of the BLM efforts this year because that fight is far from over.

I currently work for a charity, and a big way of how we offer the service that we do and make a positive change to people’s lives is by understanding social media and using it to spread honest stories and rallying cries. I see social networks actually being networks and helping people all the time.

I admit I often feel like the system is broken and I don’t know what the solution is, but I’m not going to unplug just yet.

3 thoughts on “Is ‘The social dilemma’ revealing truths or inciting fear?

  1. New Media Works

    Hi Helena 🙂

    can you give me a quick + easy definition of “social media”?

    🙂 Norbert

    1. Hey Norbert, I’d define it as a website or app that focuses on community input, enabling users to share content and ideas, and network. For me though it’s also a place to find information and entertainment as well as contribute 🙂

      1. New Media Works

        EXCELLENT! 😀

        IMHO, that’s pretty much the entire Internet.

        🙂 Norbert

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