'The Social Dilemma' has trouble mixing metaphors

David Strom 25 Sep 2020

Despite its flaws, the film could be one small step to help us understand the role that social media plays in our lives

Earlier this month, Netflix started streaming the docufilm The Social Dilemma. It was first screened at Sundance earlier this year, and now is widely available. Since its release, it has been widely reviewed.

The film combines documentary-style interviews with leading minds formerly at Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Instagram, and so on, along with star turns from Shoshana Zuboff, Jaron Lanier and Renee Diresta. The thesis is that the social giants have sold us and our data down the river, and we now are stuck with them. The New York Times review is mostly positive, saying the interview subjects areconscientious defectors from these companies who explain that the perniciousness of social networking platforms is a feature, not a bug.” The best interview subject is Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who now runs a non-profit called the Center for Humane Technology.

This is not a new message, but it is nice to hear from the folks that built some of the apps (one guy is the inventor of the Like button) on the regrets they now have with how their tech is being used for evil purposes, such as persecution, child abuse, bullying, and fake news to bring about the demise of our democratic institutions. (This report from BuzzFeed about a leaked Facebook employee memo last week and her role with manipulating elections all over the world is also worth reviewing.)

Intercut with these interviews are two scripted dramas: the first uses a family setting to show how they are addicted to their devices. It borders on the cute and cloying. The other is a visualization of how the social algorithms work with three actors playing the roles of a "Star Trek" bridge-like environment to navigate around the user's likes and foibles. To me, this one was just annoying.

I thought I might be too harsh in my critique of the two scripted elements, so I asked Patricia Boiko, a Seattle-based documentary filmmaker. She liked the overall editing and pace of the interviews but felt these narrative portions were completely unnecessary. “I had problems in following their storylines and didn’t think either were very helpful or very believable. It was more of a distraction,” says Boiko. She also felt that the Star Trek bridge scenes “didn’t ring true and didn’t amplify the interviews of the computer experts.” Overall, she felt these additions didn’t really make the movie work for younger audiences. 

She watched the film with her husband, who isn’t as computer literate, and was surprised that many of the issues brought up were new ones for him – but not for her. “I already knew that the social platform companies like Facebook and Twitter were mining and selling our personal data.” She recalls being with her 30-something daughter listening to some streaming music channel together. “I wanted to hear a particular group on that channel and kept skipping past other recommended songs that the service had selected for us,” she told me. “Then my daughter chastised me and told me that I was messing up their algorithm – as if what I was doing was a bad thing. I realized that my kids’ generation innately understand algorithms.” I’ll have more to say about taming these algorithms later.

Thoughts from social media insiders

I asked a couple of my Facebook friends what they thought of the movie and what they learned. One said, “No one is immune. Facebook is dangerous, and some kind of regulation is needed.” Another said that he was glad that he doesn't have young children after watching the movie. He then added, “I want to better monitor my own behavior and screen time and call on our legislators to regulate this runaway train.”

Coincidentally, this week, I was taking an online course at Arizona State University on media literacy. One of the modules states the following:

If the United States government had proposed 20 years ago that everyone must carry with them a tracking device that would let corporations and law enforcement know every person’s location at all times, there would have been protests in the streets. We have given up an enormous amount of privacy — and security in key ways — for the sake of convenience. And as the coronavirus has spread, we’ve seen increasing calls to give up even more for the sake of public health.” Welcome to the new normal.  

Some general takeaways

Whether you liked or disliked the movie or are deciding whether it is worth your time, here are three general takeaways and actionable things you can do to help better understand the role that algorithms play in current society, ways you can better protect your privacy, and recommendations of other content to consume to better explain what the producers of The Social Dilemma were trying to do.

Understanding the role of algorithms

In the movie, venture capitalist Roger McNamee points out that we are pitted against an algorithm and the fact that it’s not a fair fight. If you are new to algorithms and want something better than the scenes in the film, I have several recommendations:

What can you do about your privacy?

Some of the best privacy-enhancing suggestions run during the end credits, so make sure you see those if you do watch the film.

In his article on ThePrivacy, author Craig Danuloff has a lot to say about the movie. He starts out by saying the film is “a terrifying documentary about the toxic combination of social media and surveillance capitalism and how together they’re harming our lives and our society. These companies know how we’re likely to react to various stimuli, so they increasingly manipulate us via our feeds. But when addiction and manipulation are used to sell ideas the stakes rise and the game gets rougher. It’s no longer just about using a little personalization to optimize sales, it becomes a path that starts with personalization then gets pulled to radicalization to falsification to antagonism.” He ends his post by recommending the social media firms move away from ad-driven business models.

Further viewing

To my point about the movie’s message not being either new or unique, Joe Rogan interview of Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi from his podcast last November covered some of the same ground that were raised in the movie.

Danuloff said in his review that “Nobody intended to build reaction loops that would lead teenagers to harm themselves.” To that point, The Social Dilemma is probably not rated T for Teen – not because of any sex or violence (there isn’t any). Instead, most teens probably would rate it B for boring and won’t respond well to its message. Instead, try the movie Screenagers by Delaney Ruston that documents the lives of teens and how they and their families make decisions about screen usage. You’ll need to request it directly from the filmmaker, but even without watching the film its resources page on its website is chock full of suggestions for parents and teens alike on how to better use their social media.

Where does that leave The Social Dilemma? It is a flawed film, to be sure. But it could be one small step to help understand the role that social media plays in our lives. It could help start some conversations with the less tech-savvy family members and friends.

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