While it seems obvious that waiting on social media for notification likes is a bad thing, The Social Dilemma goes to show how social media is specifically engineered to give the user a hit of joy when that happens. The documentary has a lot of talking heads talking solemnly about how the users are basically fighting against an A.I. that is designed to know more about them every time they click on a link, and the users are losing. There’s an attempt to visualize this with a fictional dramatic storyline in the documentary about a teen who is rapidly succumbing to his social media addiction which has a mixed result, sometimes the fictional parts work, other times it feels like hokey anti-social media PSA. There are probably is only so many animations and stock footage of people looking at their phones that would be interesting, so the filmmakers threw in dramatic characters. The result is a compelling documentary with a so-so fictional emotional drama and a sci-fi AI dystopia movie floating in the middle of it.
The Social Dilemma begins with a cavalcade of former social media software engineers and investors telling the truth about how social media works. The most prominent interviewee is former Google employee Tristan Harris who once sent a company wide memo about the detrimental psychological effects of Google which got notice internally but nothing changed. Him and others reveal the dangers of unrestrained social media and its effect on society at large. The other part of The Social Dilemma is a fictional account of a family and their various struggles with being addicted to their social media accounts with scenes set “inside” the social media algorithm that slowly takes over their lives. Overall, the interviews parallel the fictional narrative culminating with a vaguely hopeful, if unspecific, alternative proposal for social media where it would work for the user instead of working them like a puppet.
The fictional narrative is a bit wobbly. One moment that is incredibly affecting is when the young kid puts filters to her looks and then reads the comments as the camera stays on her face while her reaction gets progressively more distraught. Interestingly, the fictional scenes never mention any specific real apps or companies, probably because it would be slanderous. There is a hate group stand-in that’s supposed to represent the alt-right internet trolling memes but it’s not a real group, just something made up. It contrasts weirdly with the real interviews that mention the companies and apps by name.
The more abstract fictional bit is a look inside a social media algorithm with three A.I.’s (all played by Vincent Kartheiser) who are constantly monitoring a teen male’s social media presence and actively pushing him for notifications and selling his views for money. It is a fictional representation of what is happening inside of computer mainframes and how they are tracking and advertising to people with monetized clicks. The most striking visual moment is how the AI’s make a digital copy of the teen that becomes progressively more defined as it goes on as more bad things happen to him. As far as menacing visual representations of data tracking go, it’s fairly effective.
The interviews basically are an over an overview of the topic is and then the fictional narrative dramatizes it. The interview portions are fascinating although sometimes it devolves into scary soundbites about social media being evil. However, the point that social media is addictive by feeding off the fundamental need for human connection is salient. Human brains have not evolved to take in so much stimuli, especially the growing minds of kids. Harris astutely says that Saturday morning cartoons used to have regulations about what was advertised to kids, however now Youtube Kids is basically just Google owned a monetization machine without any oversight.
By a user inputting something into a search engine the more times it happens, the better the computers get at finding it. The big problem is manipulation. They point out that Russia did not technically “hack” the 2016 US Election by social media, what Russia did was use tools provided by social media in legit manner to twist around results. The reason false information spreads so fast on social media is that it simply generates more clicks and therefore more money. It is a vicious cycle of revenue and generating clicks which is why all the terrible stuff seems to rush to the forefront. Harris calls it “a disinformation for profit business model” which is apt and frightening. These systems were not designed to be evil, as one interviewee mentions they made the Facebook “Like” button to spread positivity, the problem is when it’s used to spread hate.
The Social Dilemma reveals how social media can be turned back on the user for nefarious results. A very apt quote cited in the documentary says that only two groups define their customers as “users”, software and drug addicts. These products were not made to make people feel bad, it is just how people are using it. Unfortunately, making people feel miserable about their lives is very profitable.
The Social Dilemma
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Starring: Tristan Harris, Jeff Seibert and Bailey Richardson