The Social Dilemma: Why It’s Important


Getty Images

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – JULY 29: In this photo illustration, social media apps are seen on a mobile phone on July 29, 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkey’s parliament passed a new law Wednesday, to regulate social media content. The law will require foreign social media companies to have an appointed Turkish-based representative to deal with any concerns authorities have over content. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Humanity has been through a lot. Ups and downs, lefts and rights, all while moving towards progress. Leadership, people and infrastructure have all changed with a rapidly evolving society. Among these factors and arguably the most impactful, is technology. 

Technology has taken a huge leap even since the ‘90s, and in the public’s eye the consequences have been generally unifying. There were good intentions from the start, and in many ways social media has improved the overall human quality of life by connecting people on a local, national and international scale. However, things aren’t as perfect as they seem, according to Netflix’s newest documentary, “The Social Dilemma.”

The docudrama released on Sept. 9, 2020, on Netflix in the United States, and since then it has gained mass viewership for the bleak and shocking predictions and claims about the inner workings and consequences of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and others.

“‘The Social Dilemma’ is the first film you’ll watch and immediately want to toss your smartphone into the garbage can and then toss the garbage can through the window of a Facebook executive,” AP writer Mark Kennedy stated in a review for the documentary. The film explores concepts like surveillance capitalism and data mining, in which social media companies are essentially selling their users in order to gain ad revenue. It insinuates that even though social media is technically free, you are paying the debt of the service it gives you with your own attention.

“It definitely is an addiction, and it also makes it a lot harder to get out of addiction,” master’s level counselor and addiction and relapse prevention and recovery specialist Shannon Causey said. Causey, located in the DFW area, explains that when she is counseling and helping clients, who are usually young people, they have a “blackout” period. She says that being away from their phones and away from the online world leads them to then do better with whatever addiction they may have, and the recovery process goes a lot easier. But then, she explains that as soon as they get it back, they are more susceptible to fall into old habits.

A point brought up in “The Social Dilemma” is that this is the way that social media has come to be designed. Their revenue depends on your attention, therefore their design process, from the way the site or app looks to the posts shown on your feed, are specifically wired to keep you there for as long as possible. Many of the film’s interviewees are those who have worked in the industry and know a lot about these tricks and manipulation tactics to keep their users connected.

A prominent figure in the documentary is Tristan Harris, an American and computer scientist. He is also the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. But earlier in his life, he worked for Google as a design ethicist. 

“I’m concerned about how we’re making the world more distracted,” are the words on the first slide of a presentation Harris put together back in 2013. With the presentation, titled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention”, Harris wanted to highlight the effect of feature design and advocate for the restraint of it.

“Never before in history have a handful of designers working at three companies had so much impact on how millions of Americans around the world spend their attention,” Harris states in the presentation. “We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.” And this is exactly the point of “The Social Dilemma.” It calls upon companies like Google and like Facebook to take responsibility for the enormous power they have in altering the minds of the American people.

This mind-altering effect comes in many forms.The documentary reveals upsetting statistics about skyrocketing levels of depression, self-harm, and suicide of young girls correlating strongly with the development and popularization of social media. It delves into this deeper by portraying a narrative of an eleven-year-old girl in the drama portions of the film feeling hurt and attempting to change her appearance after a mean comment on a social media post. “People who really feel drawn to [social media], in a big way, seemed to really struggle with getting into some of that stuff that maybe they wouldn’t naturally do,” Causey said.

But what about all of us, what about the general mind, the public mind? According to “The Social Dilemma,” social media plays puppeteer in that as well. And with this point another anecdote, this time that of a teenage boy getting too involved with a political party known as “the Center,” to the point of getting arrested at a rally turned violent. The question that arises is how we can civilly disagree with and listen to one another in spite of the different news, opinions, and content we are each shown based on our personalized social media feeds which tend to only show us items we strongly agree with in an effort to keep us connected.

I’ve friended people that I know have different points of view,” Causey said. “So I’m not limiting what I hear to only one side. The question you can ask is, am I only friends with people who think exactly like me?” Echo chamber is a common phrase used to describe what social media has created. One can stay in their own personal bubble, or corner of the internet in which they can choose to only follow and engage with those they agree fervently with, resulting in lack of exposure to other points of view because of your personal algorithm, and limiting chances for peaceful discussion until the very extreme.

“The Social Dilemma” addresses all of these problems with social media, both in the platforms themselves and the effects, what can happen if these things go too far. “It’s dangerous to let somebody else do your thinking for you,” Causey said. “Especially when that thing is a non-feeling entity that does not care about us. There’s no emotion in an algorithm. It’s not trying to do something bad, but it’s not trying to do something good either.”

The solution may lie in simply recognizing the problem, and as Causey stated, educating oneself to be a more free thinker. Fact-check, call out friends without blocking them, have discussions peacefully and listen to one another. And as the saying goes… don’t believe everything you see on the internet.