You have to feel a little bit bad for The Social Dilemma, a well-intentioned documentary that makes several good points but which runs into one huge problem. The documentary takes a look at social media and, more specifically, how society’s addiction to social media has led to a world where people are more divided, more angry, more anxious, and more volatile. Featuring interviews with the people worked for the companies and who created the social media sites that currently dominate our culture, The Social Dilemma shows how the algorithms that were initially designed to keep people clicking have now led to a world where everyone is living in their own separate reality. The film makes the case that this is not a good thing and that the heads of Twitter and Facebook are potentially more powerful than any world leader. Considering that the film was released months before the social media-directed riot at the capitol and Big Tech’s subsequent decision to ban President Trump (while, of course, continuing to allow both Chinese propaganda and the Ayatollah’s calls for the destruction of Israel), it’s hard not to feel that The Social Dilemma‘s case has been proven. It’s a prophetic film.
The problem, however, is that most people already know that social media is addictive and that it’s potentially harmful and that Google has way too much data on file about its users. Everyone already knows this. It’s just that most people don’t care. That’s the nature of addiction. Even though you know it’s probably going to kill you, you also know that there’s a good chance that you’re next fix might be the best feeling you’ve ever experienced.
I know that it’s not a coincidence that YouTube is always trying to get me to watch videos about kittens. I also know that it’s not a coincidence that, for several months last year, every internet ad that I saw was for lingerie. And yes, I guess it’s a little bit creepy that both YouTube and Facebook managed to figure out my political leanings, despite the fact that I hardly ever post anything political online. I would be outraged if I wasn’t so busy clicking on stuff. What’s that YouTube? There’s a video of two kittens at a meeting of libertarian Catholics and it ends with a La Perla ad? I’ll be right over. Just let me finish writing this review….
The Social Dilemma is full of interviews with people who once worked for companies and services like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Most of them wear the shell-shocked expressions of people who are still grappling with feelings of “My God, what have I done?” They discuss not only how the algorithms behind social media work but also how those algorithms eventually turned out to be more powerful and more destructive than any of their creators imagined. One former Facebook engineer discusses how “likes’ were originally viewed as being a way to encourage people to be positive but, instead, they quickly turned Facebook into a competition. One particularly sobering segment discusses how the social media boom also brought with it a surge of teenage girls going to the emergency room as a result harming themselves as their self-worth became linked to getting likes, retweets, hearts, shares, and all the rest. It’s a sobering film, though its impact is lessened by the decision to include some dramatizations involving a fictional family. The message of the film come through well enough via interviews without the film including scenes of Vincent Kartheiser literally playing a character named Artificial Intelligence. (That said, it’s always good to see Vincent Kartheiser in a film. He’s an actor who deserves to work more.)
To the film’s benefit, it acknowledges that giving up social media is not a realistic solution for most people. At this point, asking people to totally give up social media is the equivalent of asking someone to voluntarily cut themselves off from the world. (As one interviewee points out, social media manages to be both a utopia and a dystopia at the same time.) The documentary makes the argument that the Big Tech monopoly needs to be better regulated and perhaps broken up. (The film’s right but, considering how many former Silicon Valley executives and Big Tech lobbyists are going to be involved with the Biden administration, none of that’s not going to happen any time soon.) The film ends with a series of suggestions about how to use social media without allowing it to control or destroy your life. Most of them are common sense stuff — seek out opposing view points, don’t click on clickbait, don’t blindly retweet or share, do not give devices to children, turn off notifications, etc., etc. — and I’m happy to say that I do most of them.
That said, social media is addictive. I’ve tried to take breaks from twitter but it’s rare that I can ever go more than a day without checking. Seeing those mentions, seeing those likes, seeing those retweets; even after all these years, it’s still a rush. When I first started watching The Social Dilemma, I hopped on twitter just to let people know that I was watching the movie. When the movie ended, I checked to see if anyone had commented on the fact that I was watching it. That’s the world that we all live in right now.
And, as one interviewee says during The Social Dilemma, it could very well be the end of the world. What’s sad, though, is that most people are too busy looking at their phones and devices to even enjoy the ride.