Though Jeff Orlowski’s documentary The Social Dilemma was originally released back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, its recent arrival on Netflix has been creating a buzz. While the documentary has been acclaimed by viewers, critical response has been more mixed: David Erlich for IndieWire called it “perhaps the single most lucid, succinct, and profoundly terrifying analysis of social media ever created for mass consumption,” while others have rushed to claim that “social media isn’t all bad” and “The Social Dilemma Fails to Tackle the Real Issues in Tech.” So what is the documentary really all about? Is it important to watch, or another Tiger King-style example of lockdown-fueled Netflix hype? Whether it’s your first foray into the dark world of social media research or you’re already a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, it’s worth making time for this film and considering what it means.
Sometimes-clunky storytelling, but keeping track of what matters
The documentary has its shortcomings. As some have pointed out, the “prodigal techbros”—ex-employees of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram now on a mission to shed light on the ills of social media—offer a fairly tightly controlled story of their rejection of the tech industry and often come out on top in the narrative. It’s been claimed that their airtime perhaps comes at the expense of long-standing media skeptics. But this isn’t universally true—well-established critics like Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jonathan Haidt, author of The Coddling of the American Mind, and Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, all offer their views in the documentary. Since no documentary can possibly interview everyone, prioritizing those with backgrounds in the companies under investigation was an effective choice.
The execution also has its clunky moments. Riveting interviews with researchers and ex-tech-execs are interspersed with a fictional narrative of a family whose common life is being torn apart by the effects of social media. While the story is a helpful shorthand for explaining the problems described, it necessarily oversimplifies, sometimes to an unfortunate extent. For example, in portraying the body image issues of the family’s tween girl, the film cites the alarming statistics on suicide and self-harm among young girls without taking into account the many factors that may be contributing to the rapid decline in young people’s mental health. By oversimplifying this issue the film risks muddying its message. Books like The Coddling of the American Mind are much clearer-cut in their concerns about disturbing mental health trends by taking into account the variety of factors involved, and the effect is a much clearer criticism of social media’s contribution to this problem.
In addition, the family depicted is easily dismissed as an unrealistic Boomer nightmare: two children who are so addicted to technology that family dinner is an awkward and silent disaster culminating in the younger daughter literally breaking open a timer-sealed case with her phone inside. There’s a checked-out father with about thirty seconds on screen and a mother incapable of enforcing her pleading but vague demands for less social media use and more family time. The youngest son becomes radicalized by watching a fictionalized version of extremist YouTube channels, and within a very short time span, the documentary shows him being arrested at a riot with his head pinned to the ground. Though the point is a good one, the shortened timeline and high drama make for heavy-handed commentary. Most irritating is the family’s saintly oldest daughter who, blissfully free of any interest in technology, is constantly nagging her entire family to get off their phones. She is the film’s unwitting best argument against taking it to heart—save us all from ending up like that!
Laser focus on tech’s biggest problem
Then again, I often fear I am that girl, with my similarly nagging fears about how technology is changing us. And in this respect, the documentary has proved an excellent support. Rather than having to point my friends and family to the assortment of TED talks, podcast interviews, articles, and books that have contributed to my deep skepticism about technology and withdrawal from almost all feed-based, algorithmic platforms, I can now point to a documentary that describes what is wrong with social media with laser precision. Rather than casting vague aspersions hither and yon, the film focuses specifically on the biggest human-rights issue of technology (if you set aside hardware production)—the influence of behavior with the help of algorithms.
The film offers the clearest portrayal I’ve seen of the complex problem of AI-based algorithms by using human actors as symbols for technology’s attempts to keep us engaged. Interspersed throughout the film are brief vignettes in which two men symbolizing the AI algorithm conspire to keep an adolescent user entertained and coming back. The two men call out their monetary gain from each ad impression as they go along. This is where the film really breaks ground as a documentary. Though the algorithms are far too complicated for any of us to keep track of anymore (which is a major part of the problem), they are optimizing for human attention and engagement solely for the purpose of maximizing financial gain. It’s one thing to know that intellectually, and quite another to see two men pushing buttons for the attention of a mannequin-like user, who becomes increasingly recognizable as the boy in the fictional family.
There’s no shortage of critics who say we can safely dismiss or mitigate the film’s concerns. To the contrary, the film told me almost nothing I had not already seen confirmed elsewhere (or could safely guess); it just put all the pieces together to paint a disturbing picture. If you’re skeptical of The Social Dilemma’s claims, look elsewhere for confirmation, and you are likely to find it. Nicholas Carr’s classic The Shallows and Neil Postman’s prescient Amusing Ourselves to Death are good books to start with. There is also a growing assortment of studies on social media’s effects on mental health. Concerns about social media also encompass an entire genre of TED talk. I appreciate the documentary, though, because it cuts through the weeds of concerns about blue-light exposure, wasted time, and even data breaches to pinpoint the main issue—optimizing the internet to sell us stuff means our behavior is now being manipulated by algorithms we don’t understand.
What you can do
It’s true that the film doesn’t offer many concrete solutions, aside from promoting laudable projects like ex-Google Tristan Harris’ Center for Humane Technology and ex-Facebook Tim Kendall’s Moment app. I think the film rightly advocates for broader-scale technology reform, because actions on an individual basis are unlikely to cause the sweeping change necessary to humanize our technology use. Nonetheless, there are a few changes we can make in the meantime to minimize the scariest element of today’s internet—its behavior manipulation—without, as Jaron Lanier suggests, deleting all our social media accounts right now.
In an age where the internet is out to sell you stuff, concealing your identity as a consumer is paramount. We can’t do much yet about the Facebook Pixel tracking us on third-party websites or Google tracking our credit card records and matching them with our Google Maps travel, but we can use an app like Waze instead of Google Maps and ask Google to delete the data it collects.
The simultaneously easiest and hardest way to keep your identity secret is to use platforms signed-out whenever possible. This is especially useful with Google products. If you have to use Chrome and not a more privacy-safe browser like Firefox, sign out of your Google account while using it. YouTube works just as well signed out—it just won’t recommend to you the videos most likely to draw you into an endless scroll. Whenever possible, don’t use your Google or Facebook account when signing into third-party website—go for the old-fashioned email method (side note: avoid giving out your phone number for online accounts if at all possible—that’s the most dangerous option for data hacking). Even if you use all the anti-tracking and blockers in the world, Google and Facebook still know who and where you are if you explicitly tell them.
Obviously, it’s also hard for Google and Facebook to sell you stuff if you’re not giving them the opportunity. I’ve had a Facebook account for work for years and have gotten by with only a few checks to the infamous news feed. Just bookmark a Facebook page in your browser (I use Verily’s!), and head directly there when you need to check event invites, friend requests, and messages. You bypass the feed and the ads! I also find it’s often worth it to pay for the ad-free version of various sites. If you’re paying them, they don’t have to sell you stuff. This is where the adage “if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product” can be turned from a dire warning into useful advice: if you consciously choose to pay for a product, you’re less likely to be treated like the product. Honestly, ads are so effective that I think I buy less stuff when I have a YouTube or Spotify Premium subscription—they might even pay for themselves.
It’s becoming increasingly possible to opt out of trackers, as well. It’s challenging, but filing a request under the California Consumer Privacy Act (see the guide here) is one way to force major companies to stop selling your data. I use Lockdown, a free app for iOS, to block trackers on my phone and laptop. The app also has a (paid) VPN service, which is one of the easiest and most effective ways to protect your identity since it masks your location from trackers. Just do your homework to make sure the VPN service itself isn’t selling your data (yikes!)—Express VPN and Lockdown are both safe options in that respect.
It’s time for technology to make some major changes, and The Social Dilemma makes this abundantly clear. While we wait, we can stay educated and make some small changes—and hopefully in years to come social media will be more about the people and less about the ads.