When The Social Dilemma documentary dropped on Netflix back in September, it generated plenty of buzz around the (virtual, remote) water cooler, both here at DS and nationally. Arriving as it did in the midst of a pandemic and in the run-up to Election Day, The Social Dilemma scrutinizes social media at precisely the point at which we’re relying on it most.
If you haven’t seen The Social Dilemma, the Netflix docudrama explores how the rise of social media and smartphones has altered the very fabric of our lives. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, the film features interviews with former Silicon Valley-ites who helped to build and popularize social media—and now have serious concerns about their creation’s effects on society and democracy. The interviews with former employees of Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter and others are cut with dramatizations of social media’s impact on young people, as well as imagined representations of social media algorithms at work.
To many, the points raised by The Social Dilemma will be nothing new. We’ve seen plenty of commentary over the past five to ten years about how social media is an addictive instant-gratification sugar high from which we must ultimately come down. But what makes the film different from cultural criticism of years past is its claim that social media’s addictiveness is not by accident, but by design. The infinite scroll, the Like button, the push notifications—according to The Social Dilemma, these are all tools that social media companies use to keep you glued to your screen, where you can be bombarded by advertisers and propagandists using your personal data for their own ends.
So, does The Social Dilemma hit the mark? We asked our team of social-media-savvy digital natives to put on their culture-critic caps and give us their take on the Netflix documentary and boy, did they deliver. Here’s how a few of our team members received The Social Dilemma.
“From a personal standpoint, the documentary raised my level of awareness of how I consume and engage with social media. I’m striving to be more mindful of how often I pick up my phone, how long I spend scrolling through newsfeeds and refreshing my browser, and set boundaries for myself. With greater awareness should come greater accountability.
From a professional standpoint, marketers have always had a responsibility to the public to be good storytelling stewards. Not to mislead or deceive. To be truthful, authentic and resonant. As social media ratchets up data and privacy concerns, marketers and advertisers can lead the way by demanding a recommitment to ethics, empathy and humanity in everything we do. Again, with greater awareness should come greater accountability.”
“The Social Dilemma clearly explains the dangers of excessive social media exposure, algorithms-as-solutions, federal deregulation and inhumane business models but does nothing to educate audiences on the thousands of organizations committed to a more fair, just and equitable internet. There is no call to action nor a rally to arms with actionable resources to help the average person craft a healthy relationship with the internet. Rather, all The Social Dilemma offers the viewer is something we all know—turn off the notifications on your phone.”
“My biggest takeaway: I am no longer going to refer to ‘the algorithm’ when talking about what ends up in people’s feeds. These companies and people programmed the logic behind ‘the feed.’ We need to assign responsibility instead of blaming a mystical algorithm for the content we see.
Yes, most social media is a horrible echo chamber and time trap and users are being marketed to. Can we agree these dopamine merchants should be held accountable now? It’s sad that we need this documentary to tell us this, but put down your phone for a little bit and go outside or share your opinions and photos in person, with context.”
“For anyone working in social media, the insights about who’s using your information for what on the internet comes as little surprise. But for the casual social media user, this can be frightening.
When it comes to the internet, it’s important to keep in mind that ‘free’ isn’t free. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, LinkedIn—they all come with a cost and that cost is your data.
As this information becomes widely circulated and understood by the general public, the vast concerns do have an effect. Companies like Facebook have been removing certain targeting capabilities to increase privacy for its users. However, keep in mind that these companies all work towards a bottom line and their main product is advertising to their users.
I for one don’t get too freaked out about this. I see it as the natural cost of using the platform. But the decision to use or not use social media is an individual one with no right answers across the board.”
“Throughout the documentary, the commentary is really meant to provoke thought about how our daily usage is negatively impacting our lives and society at large. While there is no question that unlimited social media usage can be harmful, it also should make us consider the ways in which we consume the internet without truly understanding the space. So many people I spoke with were surprised that these platforms were collecting and using so much data.
I think this raises an important point that anytime we are consuming something for free the expense is our data. This is the case for not just social media, but free website publishers, search engines, apps, games and so on. The internet isn’t truly free content and we have to determine if we are willing to pay monetarily, or give up some of our non-identifiable information and be served some ads in exchange for what we’re getting.”
In the end, the choice to engage with social media is a personal one. The Social Dilemma depicts consumers as helpless in the face of algorithm-fueled manipulation, but are we, really? A couple decades of experience with social media has taught us all that the platforms can bring out the best of humanity—and sometimes the worst. Whether and how we continue to use social media ultimately comes down to a careful, informed analysis of what we stand to gain, and what we risk losing.
Mary Rice is well acquainted with words, restaurants and the gram. Her copywriting world revolves around compelling captions, journalistic storytelling and all things British culture. God save the Queen!