socialPicture this, if you will.  Everyone’s electronic devices … phones, computers, tablets … are connected to a massive computer that monitors everything they do and uses that information to control what they believe, think and do.  Or.  Imagine that your devices and everything you do on them is displayed to a team of managers whose job it is to keep you online as long as possible and to drive you to look at certain advertisers’ information.  Sounds like a 1990s science fiction film, but it’s not.  These are two of the images the film, The Social Dilemma, uses to illustrate the ways that social media like Facebook and Instagram are damaging our society through manipulating what we look at based upon our actions online.  The film offers three areas of concern: mental health because studies show a decline in mental health and life satisfaction greater use of social media; decline of democracy because of disinformation campaigns on social media; and rising extremism because the majority of people in extremist groups were steered there by social media.

The film follows two tracks.  In one, former movers and shakers in social media talk about the algorithms that choose what you see, how they work and how they produce the negative results.  In critiques I’ve read, a criticism is that these people who created the algorithms imply that they were unaware of the negative effects of their work, which isn’t entirely true.   Still, their presence gives the film a certain believability.  The second track dramatizes a family dealing with the effects of social media via two teenagers being manipulated by the management team determining what they see.  Some reviewers complain that this is a poor metaphor for how the algorithms work but to me it’s a reasonable device to help non-techies understand.  The film was very well received critically although naturally there were criticisms.   In particular, there were claims that the film inaccurately portrays how the computer algorithms work and how much control they have over the users.  And naturally, Facebook says the film gives a distorted view of how social media platforms work to create a convenient scapegoat for what are difficult and complex societal problems.  Personally, what I see going on in our country gives circumstantial credence to the film’s claims.  I’ll try to give a brief summary of the film’s conclusions but of course, I recommend you watch it yourself and draw your own conclusions.

The effects of social media that the film suggests are best understood by considering the film’s view of what social media platforms are selling, since after all the computer algorithms in the end are designed to maximize profit.   It is all too easy to think that social media is simply showing you what you want to see, like Wikipedia does, with some ads thrown in to pay the bills.  Wikipedia returns the same thing no matter who looks up The Social Dilemma.  The film claims what social media sells is our attention and that the algorithms are designed to maximize the time we spend on the sites though specific choice of material presented to each user and though such things as notifications and likes.  Minds in a distracted state are more vulnerable to advertising the film says.   Secondly, the film claims that addiction is built into the algorithms by exploiting human weakness using intermittent positive reinforcement.  Each time our devices call to us, we receive a little dose of dopamine which is habit forming and leads to addiction.  Finally, The Social Dilemma says that although many of us think of social media as a tool for keeping in touch, tools don’t continually nag us with notifications and emails or use our own psychology against us to keep us coming back and viewing particular material.    In fact, social media manipulates us. The film ends with some recommendations on how to reduce the deleterious effects of social media including being aware of these effects, monitoring use by children and lobbying for greater regulation of the industry.  The website also recommends using social media itself to make others aware of what’s happening and provides material for posting online. 

I am inclined to believe there is a lot of truth in the film which is why I’m writing this post but I’d recommend reviewing the film and some commentary on it yourself before you decide what to believe. Here are some links with different viewpoints:

3 Things We Learned About Social Media from Netflix’s “The Social Diilemma – A mostly positive summary and the source for much of paragraph 3, above.

The Social Dilemma Website

What Is The Social Dilemma: 6 Things To Know About The Netflix Documentary Before You Watch – Good Movie Review with Non-Tech Opinions

What Netflix’s The Social Dilemma gets wrong about Big Tech – Probably the most balanced critique I found.

The Social Dilemma Manipulates You With Misinformation As It Tries To Warn You Of Manipulation By Misinformation – Strident disagreement but often just name calling and opinions.

The Social Dilemma: Fact or Manipulation?  – Excellent article by a media psychologist.

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2 Comments on “(Anti-)Social”

  1. Wendy Says:

    You’ve done a well measured post here and highlighted reasons to watch the film. It is well worth the time to watch it. I’d like to see discussion groups formed to discuss its implications for our society, especially the hype over the Metaverse, which goes beyond the scope of what the Social Dilemma discusses I’ve read several articles that express concerns over the impact the Metaverse would have. As well, t is worthwhile to engage with Trish Harris and his website Humane Technology. I appreciate you posting this.

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