Review: The Social Dilemma

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We all know we spend too much time on social media. I am often carried away by that powerful, seemingly endless, stream of content, deposited in some of the strangest corners on the internet. Recently, I sojourned in a popular destination, Handforth Parish Council, where, hiding behind my screen, I beheld a meeting descending into chaos. When it’s only a few videos and a quick check across your accounts, it doesn’t seem such a problem. However, with a whole generation reporting to be more depressed than ever, suicide rates rising exponentially all of which are traceable to the advent of social media, then it starts to get worrying. Very worrying.

This is precisely what Netflix’s documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ intends to address. It features a host of Silicon Valley’s top innovators, including Jeff Seibert, former executive of Twitter, Tim Kendall, ex-president of Pinterest, and Sean Parker ex-president of Facebook. Through their eyes, we witness what began as a collection of innocuous platforms morph into the ubiquitous, global entity it is today. Slightly awkwardly, they stare into the aperture of the camera, each burdened by the weight of guilt they have to share for their input in its creation. ‘It was supposed to spread positivity’, Justin Rosenstein, founder of the ‘like’ button, confesses. There is a note of tragic pathos which underscores the words of these great minds; indeed, at times, it turns into a self-flagellation session where they ruminate and curse themselves over situations they could never control, and circumstances they could never foresee.

Methods like uninstalling apps or following views contrary to our own are about as useful as a therapist saying ‘don’t do drugs’ to a child with a family history of addiction

Launched at the Sundance festival, the documentary was later transferred to Netflix, where it has received favourable attention from critics and the general public alike. However, the medium that it is transmitted through is problematic; the same messages it delivers on social media’s addictiveness and manipulation could easily be said about Netflix’s streaming service, the service that urges viewers to watch the next episode, teases them with automatic trailers, removes ratings, decides how well their interests suit the shows on offer. It is like a McDonald’s advert warning on the adverse effects of fast food, ironic and seemingly unaware, or in denial of, its culpability. Nevertheless, one must give credence to the program for its otherwise transparent nature.

However, its message is, at times, too clear. Alongside the interviews runs a fictional narrative to provide interludes to the show, which recap the previous points made regarding social media by exemplifying how it may apply in a real-world situation. While it may have helped to broaden the demographic to appeal to younger audiences, for me, they seem tautological. The characters are predictable, bland and boring, as is the personification of the inside of the phone, which ends up looking like Black Mirror’s version of Inside Out, only less clever and slightly patronising. 

Thus, whether it is a suitable deterrent for people to quit social media is debatable. Many reviewers of the program have reported to have done so since watching it, however, personally, it did not seem to provide sufficient incentive to act. From the trailer, it outlines its intention to reveal the secrets behind big tech companies. The secrets it reveals however, the algorithm’s detailed knowledge of our behaviour, how our data is being sold, are not exactly clandestine affairs. We are highly aware of them, whether that be from political officials, or from our personal experiences, for example, noticing the surprising accuracy of the adverts in our feed, on topics we were just talking about moments ago. Indeed, the information it supplies is not new, nor, unfortunately, are their solutions. Methods like uninstalling apps or following views contrary to our own are about as useful as a therapist saying ‘don’t do drugs’ to a child with a family history of addiction. The problems we experience are deep and psychological, intertwined into our social structure, our value system.

The documentary fulfils its promise in furnishing an insight into the mechanisms behind Silicon Valley’s technological pursuits, although its effectiveness is compromised by the lack of depth that goes into it. Perhaps it is the cynic in me that makes it seem like the future is bleak or the general doomsday mantra throughout the program. Maybe it’s plainly the fact that we are already aware of these issues and still continue using them (myself included). All these valid reasons that should deter us from social media are like the notifications that pop up on our phones, the notifications we swipe away and disappear into that digital abyss. Only when they carry a tangible, personal threat, we decide to click on them. That is, if it’s not already too late.

Image: Pixelkult from Pixabay

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