Ugh, yes, we get it: social media is bad for us. We get that it’s bad for us in the same way that we get candy is bad for us. We pay for the short-term sugar rush with cavities, unless we brush often or eat M&Ms in moderation, but if candy were as sexy as social media, none of us would have our original teeth. We pay for the short-term high of a well-liked photo with the decay of our society. We know that in the long term social media begets tech addiction, depression, body dysmorphia, isolation, extremism, violence. We know that we waive our right to privacy with every login. And yet.
The Social Dilemma contends with the staggering consequences of social media and its implications for humanity, a topic that feels too big for a Ken Burns series, let alone a 90-minute Netflix documentary. Despite the immensity of the subject, The Social Dilemma is comprehensive and nuanced; it patiently and carefully decodes the enigmatic algorithms that run our lives. The mission of the film is not to tell us what we already know, but to expose what only a handful of people (men) in Silicon Valley fully understand: how social media manipulates us, and why. Director Jeff Orlowski invites scholars, authors, doctors, and a slew of former executives, engineers, and employees from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—all the big names in Big Tech—to untangle the intricate network of problems social media has created and to diagnose the root thing responsible for our myriad of societal ills.
The technology we interact with every day is designed to be persuasive: it exploits our psychological vulnerabilities to convince us of something. Likes & follows & retweets are a sweet hit of dopamine; fresh posts at the top of a feed are positive reinforcement for engaging with the site. Social media takes advantage of our human nature, redirecting our biological need for connection so that we engage less in reality, and more online. Any addictive substance functions this way, and the goal is always for the user to use more.
If anything is made clear throughout the course of this film, it’s that all of this was done on purpose. Many, if not most, of social media’s creators studied at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, learned how to imbue their designs with subconscious control. Social media was not created with human beings in mind, just human weaknesses.
Maybe we already know this, the ways social media hijacks our bodies and hacks our minds, but if we do, we probably prefer not to think about it. Orlowski does not share that inhibition. He is as persistent in asking Why? as a three-year-old who’s been denied ice cream. His relentlessness takes us further behind the screen, challenges us to consider exactly why these designers are so interested in keeping us online.
The answer, like the answer to most Whys in America, has to do with money.
We don’t pay to use Facebook or Twitter or Google. We can like and comment and share until our fingers go numb from clicking and tapping and typing, and all for free. It’s free, at least, in that we don’t give these sites money. We pay in other ways.
Because we aren’t spending money, someone has to. Advertisers pay for our privilege to share our thoughts, stalk our exes, and laugh at dumb memes. Our (wasted) time becomes someone else’s money. The more time we spend on a website, the more attention we give it, the more ads we’ll see; the more time we spend on a website, the more its algorithm learns about us, the more personalized our ads get. We’ve seen how this plays out. Who hasn’t had the eerie experience of talking to a friend about Home Depot, only to see a Home Depot ad pop up on Facebook a few hours later?
Companies want a guarantee that their advertisements will drive business, and the alarmingly powerful algorithms behind social media come pretty damn close to offering one. Shoshana Zuboff, a scholar and expert on surveillance capitalism, explains that to make this guarantee, you need a strong prediction, and for a strong prediction, you need a lot of data.
So, our data gets fed into a machine, which can, in turn, make a prediction about what we want to see. Orlowski asks, Why?
It isn’t impossible to connect the dots. If a social media platform can show us what we want to see, it can keep us engaged for longer periods of time, which means that its algorithm learns us better and can keep us engaged even longer, which means we’re seeing more ads that are more likely to appeal to us. But we still have the power, right? We don’t have to buy anything being advertised to us. We can continue to indulge in what social media has to offer without spending money, and in that way, it feels like the joke’s on them for a moment: advertisers pay and we see more and more of that quality content we love.
That is, at least, the apparent objective of these algorithms, but is not how they function in reality. The posts you see and the posts that are recommended to you are designed to lure you into virtual rabbit holes. The most effective way to do this is through sensational media, something that’ll catch your eye or make you mad. Fake news spreads faster, and algorithms can’t discern between fact or fiction—they can only promote what’s most likely to get clicked on and shared. Social media in this way becomes a breeding ground for untruth and conspiracies, and because of the algorithms that power them, it’s only a matter of time before one will appeal perfectly to you.
Hence, now. Personalized feeds are at the root of our estrangement from one another. When the platform knows how to appeal to you, it will show you something different from your digital neighbor, and so on, and so on. We’re eroding our common understanding, and without a shared reality, the fabric of our society will disintegrate like an entombed mummy brought into the light after thousands of years. This is what Tristan Harris, and ostensibly Orlowski, points to as the central problem, as the underlying thing. The deterioration of truth via social media poses an existential threat to humanity. We very well may scroll to our deaths.
But The Social Dilemma touches on another heavy implication of social media design that may prove even more grave for humanity.
This documentary effectively gives shape to our ethereal data and delves into its true purposes. In deciding what content to populate your feed with, the algorithm is influencing the way you think. It isn’t your attention for sale, but “the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product,” as author Jaron Lanier puts it. Every time you engage with a platform, you feed more data into the system, and that data is regurgitated into a model of human behavior. As these models develop, they become better at predicting what you will do. Social media platforms don’t sell your data; they sell these models. This is the guarantee that advertisers are after. In Zuboff’s dark words, we have effectively created a new marketplace that “trades exclusively in human futures.”
If there is a shortcoming in The Social Dilemma, it is that it fails to explicitly acknowledge that, because these algorithms are changing the way you think, social media platforms aren’t predicting our behavior, but determining it. We are essentially complicit in the extermination of our free will.
Just like a good rabbit hole, The Social Dilemma is revelatory, and takes us on a trip to unexpected places. It does what it sets out to do: get you to think a little bit differently. Though it paints a bleak picture, it’s an honest one, and that is goes a long way right now.
I gave this documentary a thumbs up after watching, and then I wondered whether I gave it a thumbs up, or whether the years of online content I’ve consumed gave it a thumbs up. It is hard to know how much of myself I can credit to myself, how much I owe to those hundreds of hours scrolling.
The Social Dilemma
dir. Jeff Orlowski
Available on Netflix Wednesday, September 9
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