This docudrama is a must-see for anyone who uses social media to stay connected
There’s an age-old adage in communication studies: the medium is the message.
It’s a pretty simple idea: a platform and the ideas it conveys are inextricably linked. Ideas disseminated on Twitter bring with them the urgency implied by character limits. Personal Facebook posts presume an audience of people the author knows in real life. Academic textbooks carry with them all the problematics of educational institutions – historical instances of racism, classism, and gatekeeping.
So there lies the problem with the new Netflix docudrama, The Social Dilemma. It’s an urgent film centered around the havoc social media is wreaking on society. Collectively, our mental health is getting much worse, our political systems are at stake, and our personal information is being continuously ferried between large corporations.
The Social Dilemma (and particularly, former Google employee Tristan Harris) acts as a whistleblower, warning us of the dangers of the overuse of our phones and our social media accounts. Social media is the monster to which we have fallen captive, and per The Social Dilemma, there are nearly no ways out.
These are important points. So what’s the problem?
Well: the medium is the message.
The film is streaming on Netflix, a for-profit streaming service that makes use of the algorithms the film so ardently vilifies. Rather than being made freely available on YouTube, or better yet, Vimeo, The Social Dilemma assumes an audience with access to Netflix. This is gatekeeping at its most troublesome; the sobering facts and figures present in the film should be freely available to all, not only those with a Netflix account who have consented to the sale and manipulation of their personal information.
This looming problem aside, The Social Dilemma should be mandatory viewing for all young adults.
The film interweaves testimonies from former social media executives with a fictional narrative of a family torn apart by offshore data hoarders. Smartly, the film doesn’t make enemies of either side of the political spectrum: the conspiracy theorists to which the family’s son falls victim are militant centrists. The Social Dilemma presents two worlds, ours and this fictional family’s, as mirrors of each other; chillingly, neither is more frightening than the other.
There’s something of a general assumption that our social media accounts are mining our data. For the most part, we don’t care; Facebook’s just giving us targeted ads for consumer products, right? We’ve all made a joke about Zuckerberg listening to our conversations – it’s fairly innocuous, right?
The algorithms that make our digital hive work don’t want to sell you products; they want to sell you to the highest bidder. You are the product.
The film quotes Edward Tufte: “There are only two industries that refer to their customers as ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
Silicon Valley has gotten us addicted to their products (Facebook’s ‘like button’ is a core example of this in the film), and they keep coming up with new ways to toy with our attention spans and neuroses. Think that’s hyperbolic? Take note of how many times you refresh Instagram or Twitter the next time you use them – see how new posts always seem to rise to the top of your feed? That’s no accident – that’s user retention, and as we’ve seen, “user” is something of a loaded word in this space.
The Social Dilemma has hit the small screen at a crucial time in global history; it comments on how social media has swayed public perception of COVID-19 and the upcoming US election, among other international crises. There’s a very real subsect of the Internet run entirely by Russia in order to manipulate American politics, per the film; Twitter is not only a tool, but a weapon, and The Social Dilemma isn’t afraid to make that gutsy assertion.
In all, The Social Dilemma deserves the praise it’s receiving across the board, but the film also demands of its audience a certain scrutiny, one I’m not sure its critics have widely afforded it. It nobly asks us to stay alert and to monitor our own, parasitic relationships with the apps that keep us connected, but it also innately feeds the algorithmic beast with its presence on Netflix.
Watch it, but do so with the understanding that there is work to do. There’s too much at stake not to take The Social Dilemma seriously.