The Social Dilemma is an unlikely hit on Netflix. Most of the 94-minute documentary is simple interviews with worried former tech-industry executives. The interviews are interspersed with a dramatized story about Ben, a teenager whose life is controlled by personified AI algorithms. Rather than building up to a climax, the documentary examines several problems with social media one by one. The heavy focus on interview snippets and the laundry-list approach is a recipe for a boring movie, but The Social Dilemma has garnered nearly universal acclaim.
Early in the The Social Dilemma, several of the former tech execs are asked by the interviewer to describe the problem with social media. The execs are momentarily tongue-tied. The impression the documentary wants to give is that there is so much wrong with social media that the experts don't know where to start. But maybe the answer is just hard to summarize. In the last decade, social media has been associated with scandal after scandal - Russian vote tampering, the livestreaming of the mosque shooting in New Zealand, the promotion of extremist conspiracy theories, etc. The documentary assumes that its viewers already agree that social media has a problem. Like the execs being interviewed, we just can't say exactly why.
One recurring point in the documentary is that social media companies don't have the best interests of their users at heart. A text frame announces that 'if you don't pay for a product, you are the product.' In particular the user's attention is what can be sold to advertisers. (Another text frame quotes data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte: Only two industries refer to their customers as users, illegal drugs and software'.) Social media companies do whatever they can to attract and hold the attention of users. The companies employ powerful artificial intelligence to predict what will bring a user to the app, and keep them there.
If we stop there, the way social media keeps us connected sounds dystopian. But companies never have the best interests of the customer at heart. 'It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest,' wrote Adam Smith. Even if social media companies are out to harvest our attention, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The outcome is what matters, not the motive. If social media companies keep our attention, it may be by giving us content that we find entertaining or informative. Maybe we go back to Youtube because we are addicted. Or maybe those dystopian algorithms suggest media we find worth watching. We all have choices about how we spend our time. The Social Dilemma suggests we don't have any choices to make.
The word 'manipulated' came up again and again in the documentary. Users of social media are being manipulated to use the apps in a way that is not good for them. In fact, many users are 'addicted' to social media. This language reminded me of Marxist language about the 'exploitation' of workers. The word itself tells us how we are supposed to feel about the practice. If we instead said users are 'persuaded' to spend time on social media, the whole market sounds less ominous, but the meaning of the word isn't much different.
As a little aside, I watched The Social Dilemma with Netflix closed captioning on. Closed captioning contains both subtitles, and also a description of non-dialogue sounds as well. When the discussion was related to suspicious practices of tech companies 'ominous music' was played. When a character in the dramatization suggests that we use less social media, 'energizing music' was played. The captioning parted the curtain a little bit so I could see behind the scenes how the film makers aimed to 'manipulate' or 'persuade' the audience into certain feelings by using musical cues.
This isn't to say that there is nothing worrying about social media. The effect of social media on children emphasized by the The Social Dilemma is genuinely worrying. Children, especially pre-teen children, are not mature adults. Children are often gullible, and make poor decisions. We cannot expect them to make decisions which are in their own best interest. Social media for children should be regulated similarly to how children's television is regulated. Short of that, parents should limit their pre-teens' connections to social media, and regularly look through what they are doing online.
The documentary ends with a short discussion of the existential risk of social media. That is, the chance that unregulated social media will lead to the end of humanity as we know it. This far-fetched idea is endorsed by a couple of the experts who appear repeatedly in the documentary. I am not sure I understand exactly the mechanism by which social media would end the human race, but I think the fact that several of the interviewees support it is telling. The former execs that are interviewed in The Social Dilemma all spent much of their careers thinking about social media. Since social media is their life's work, they might think it is more important than it really is.
The Social Dilemma is a long diatribe, with some interesting ideas and observations thrown in along the way. I think it could have been cut down significantly, and I did not find the dramatization helpful. The mediocre documentary is boosted by plugging into the current widespread skepticism about the role of social media in our lives. If you enjoyed this review, don't forget to smash that like button.