THE SOCIAL DILEMMA: ARE YOU ADDICTED?
New Netflix series unearths the darkest facets of social media and forces us to confront our addictive habits
By Tanisha Thomas / 24 September 2020
When was the last time you looked at your phone? Checked for notifications on Facebook? Scrolled through your Insta feed?
I would bet it was fairly recently, and so would the handful of former Silicon Valley employees behind the creation of the social media platforms with which we’re so familiar.
While it may sound like a scare-mongering deep dive into the risks of social media, Netflix’s latest documentary The Social Dilemma explores in-depth the reality behind social platforms such as Google and Facebook. It introduces the viewer to some of the minds behind the technology in the form of talking-head interviews in which they share their growing concerns for the industry, from the rise of fake news to increasing mental health issues amongst teenagers.
The documentary quickly establishes that one of the main goals with these platforms is to understand us as users and to increase our usage time. These services we perceive to be free are not free, but are in fact paid for by advertisers competing for our attention. Ultimately, everything within social media design is about fighting to keep us hooked. Aza Raskin, former Head of User Experience at Mozilla, quips, ‘If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product". Computer Scientist and pioneer of virtual reality Jaron Lanier goes further to explain that it is a ‘gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour that is the product,’ for us as users to be influenced and persuaded into interests and purchases.
This is achieved through paying close attention to the algorithms. Prior to watching this documentary, I believed that algorithms simply functioned to generate and alter content shown on my feed based on which posts I interacted with the most. I was aware that I was likely to see more posts from artists if I interacted with similar accounts.
Screenshot from the documentary
The Social Dilemma explains that the algorithm is in fact built up of much more.
It tracks everything from what we look at right down to how long we spend looking at a post. It tracks everything we’ve done: clicks, likes, videos we’ve watched. This is then used to build an accurate model of what we are like, which in turn is used to anticipate future activity, including what kind of videos we want to watch. This is what happens with our data, and this is how we become addicted to our feeds.
The documentary also addresses a number of issues that stem from our addiction to social media, one of which is the rising rates of self-harm and suicide amongst teenagers in the US with huge increases occurring from the 2010 onwards - around the time that social media apps became available on mobile phones. It is explained that Gen Z is the first generation exposed to internet validation from a young age, and that approval in the form of likes and comments from such a large audience is something that we as humans weren’t designed to cope with.
Another of the main threats discussed is the spread of fake news. It’s highlighted that algorithms are unable to distinguish fact from fiction, and therefore will continue to recommend content that contains fake news to users if their usage history suggests they would engage with it. It is this inability to establish truth they label as a partial cause toward a rise in fake news, and as a further result increased division between people with opposing views.
The increase in societal and political polarisation is another social issue that the documentary has attributed to this omniscient algorithm. An early investor of Facebook, Roger McNamee, explains that the information each person consumes through their social media feeds is different to everyone else’s. That when people believe strongly in something (be it a movement, a political party or a conspiracy theory) and they don’t understand why other people do not share the same beliefs as them when they should be viewing the same information, it’s because the information they are viewing is not the same. McNamee goes on to say that "if everyone is entitled to their own facts there really is no need for compromise, no need for people to come together."This becomes the driving force in our social and political polarisation.
As the conversation continues, and we hear more about the existential threat of social media’s influence.
The documentary begins to insinuate that through our social media usage we are losing our grip on free will and self-determination. However, there are critics of the documentary who believe it to have overdramatised and oversimplified the issues addressed, or to have not tackled the real problems within the tech industry.
A writer for tech magazine Slate points the finger toward the lack of diversity influencing the errors made in social media design. They highlight that the surprise at the rise of online hate speech could stem from the mindset shared by a group of individuals who had likely never been the recipients of hate speech prior to the creation of the platforms which, such as the majority of early Silicon Valley employees who are white men.
Another writer at The Verge believed that the documentary oversimplified what was a further complex issue within the tech-industry, by essentially laying all the blame on the Artificial Intelligence that fuels the algorithms of social platforms, and that the research presented mostly stemmed from the opinion and experience of a select handful of whistle-blowers rather than absolute fact.
Perhaps the issues addressed are not insidious as suggested, and perhaps many of the viewers remain unsurprised by the inner workings of social platforms. Nevertheless, The Social Dilemma remains a very important reminder of life outside of social platforms; a reminder to live as consciously as possible. And to curate a feed that keeps you happy, positive, and motivated, whilst being aware that you will be experiencing a different feed than others. It’s a reminder to be cautious and open-minded, and maybe to put your phone away from time to time. Whether or not you agree with all the issues it raises, I highly recommend that everyone should watch The Social Dilemma. Since watching the documentary I have turned off my notifications, and challenged myself to spend my weekends with my phone locked away and to think more consciously about who I follow and the sort of content I consume.
If you too are intrigued in the stories and admissions of the interviewees moving toward a more humane source of technology, and what you can do about the influences’ of social media addiction either on humanity or yourself, then more can be read on the documentary’s website.
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