The Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, depicts the rise of social media and personalised online services. Deeply unnerving, it shows us not only their power over each and every one of us, but also their damage to society.
Despite being a documentary, truths are revealed through help of a fictional plot. We follow teenager Ben (Skyler Gisondo), who falls under the spell of an algorithm (Vincent Karteiser). We can relate as he tells himself that, if he wanted to, he could give up his phone. Yet instead, and to the worry of his older sister (Kara Hayward), social media gradually helps draw him towards the ‘Extreme Center’.
But the plot is only secondary. The true messengers are Tim Kendall, former president of Pinterest (and Director of Monetization at Facebook), Justin Rosenheimer, inventor of the ‘like’ button, and a whole cast of other really, really big fish. The testimonials of these experts – ranging from the co-creators of Google Drive to the author of ‘You are not a gadget’ – are as personal as they are alarming.
That big social media and tech companies aren’t actually offering their services for free isn’t news to anyone. After all, “[if] you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”. But it’s not just that they’re selling your data. The creators of the platforms explain that it’s not really about learning about you – your data isn’t actually worth that much – but about changing you. The aims are those little changes that occur within you that make you more likely to keep scrolling, more likely to buy a product. “We want to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible”.
The most alarming element is not just the facts. It’s seeing the fear in the creators of Facebook, Google and co. – some of which have since left the respective companies. When even the people who have helped build the platforms, who know them and their aims better than any outsider can ever hope to, are worried, how can you not be?
But the queasy feeling in your stomach after watching The Social Dilemma is not really fear. It’s a much more sober worry about the implication of these massive tools of public manipulation for democracy. It’s a worry about the increasing division in our society, the rapid spread of false news, without our being conscious of it. It’s a worry 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 Ice visualised 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 themselves. Instead, music, bass and cuts made it less classic documentary and more action film. But instead of increasing the intensity, this forced dramatisation took away the impact of the testimonials themselves. That the short-term joy of a ‘like’ is based on quasi-withdrawal symptoms for the remaining period of time, has much more impact than bombastic music.
Instead, The Social Dilemma could have spent a little more time on presenting possible solutions. Yes, it reminded me to be critical upon my own social media consumption. It reminded me to ask not just if it makes me happy, but also to question if those emotions may 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 honest, it doesn’t seem enough to simply give people ten reasons for deleting their social media accounts. So long as start-ups and organisations continue to be run on Facebook, this cannot, and will not, be a viable option for everyone. The Social Dilemma highlights that social media is far from being a purely private phenomenon. It is political. And so long as we live in a democracy, it should be us, and not a few individuals in Silicon valley, deciding how we want to use these powerful tools.