Review: The Social Dilemma

Culture

Written by Lauren Nicol

Illustration by Aimee Lee

Written and directed by Jeff Orlowski, alongside other creatives, the 2020 Sundance Festival-prized documentary, The Social Dilemma, finally came to Netflix’s screens this autumn. A socially critical (in all words) piece, the documentary/ film delves deep into the terrifying implications behind the growth of social media. Joined by a group of social media experts, including ex-Google designer Tristan Harris, Twitter’s Former Executive Jeff Seibert, and many others who helped build the most popular social media platforms, the film acts as a warning across all generations:

If you’re getting a service for free, you are the product.

There is a very doom-and-gloom, apocalyptic tone that draws you in from the very beginning of the film. I suppose it’s to be expected, considering almost all of the interviewees in the feature have become self-declared anti-social media. While, in parts, the film seems to go a bit too far in its demonisation of social media (the extremely dramatic story that runs alongside the documentary comes to mind), social media is exposed to have components that are downright terrifying. 

The ending of the documentary, where all the experts admit that they refuse or restrict the usage of social media with their kids, definitely hits home. You’re struck with the unnerving realisation that they know something we are clearly oblivious to – and it’s something dangerous. Another thing to remember is the way in which the algorithm for almost all social media platforms is technology-driven. As highlighted in the documentary, this means that social media is driven by the goal of achieving maximum screen time – even if the way it does so is downright unethical. Monitoring screen times, pushing to grab your attention by escalating social anxiety and divisive opinions, promoting FOMO, spreading false information for the clicks, encouraging hate and apathy towards others… It’s scary to think that, while these people are listing all the consequences of social media, we’re here living in it.

Unfortunately, the more cinematic part of the documentary is a bit too dramatic for my taste. The acting is over-the-top and it’s clear that it’s been written by an adult who doesn’t fully understand how young people use social media – and, more importantly, how conscious most young people are as to how negative social media can be. In one scene, you see an impossibly tiny girl – maybe 10 years old – grab a hammer to break her phone out of a plastic container – just so that she can check her Instagram. In another, a teenage boy skips football practice and a proper night’s sleep just so that he can watch more YouTube videos.

I’m sure a lot of people like me were watching this thinking this does not happen. Because it doesn’t.

Social media addiction is a real issue. Our obsession with social media has become directly linked to our mental health. Likes have become equated to our own levels of serotonin. The way we value ourselves is primarily based on how we’re represented on screen. Even from someone who has worked in social media in the past, I can see that these latest developments are nothing but worrying. But – and it’s a small but – I would say that young people aren’t so blind that they’re mindlessly scrolling through their newsfeed to the point that they get arrested (which does happen in the film by the way, spoiler alert). 

As Tristan Harris rightfully highlighted, our reptilian brains aren’t equipped to deal with such a large level of socialising. I think he said that our former capacity was something between 50 and 100 people? Not only this but identifying false information or fake news is becoming increasingly more difficult, as social media is trained to ensure that we are surrounded only by opinions and news headlines that align with our own views and interests. When you’re surrounded (seemingly) by people who think and believe the same as you, it becomes harder to sympathise or even understand the other side of the coin.

I would say that the mixing of social media with politics has been the powder keg to this whole mess. The Trump election and Brexit campaign, to name a few, have opened a Pandora’s box of misinformation, apathy and the most division this world has ever seen – and the documentary does not shy on bringing this to our attention. As the film progresses, it’s clear that the aim of the film isn’t just to show the dangers social media presents to ourselves but, also, to society. 

While watching the film, I was reminded weirdly of this video by online YouTube teacher Kurzgesagt, who presents complex ideas “In a Nutshell”. In this specific video, they discuss the concept of The Great Filter, which is the idea that species reach a certain point in their evolution where they can’t advance any further and, consequently, become extinct. Social Dilemma reminded me of this concept because, as much as I hate to admit it, social media and the advancement of technology could quite possibly be The Great Filter that ends the human race for good.

But, hey, it might not all be doom and gloom. Social Dilemma has had a huge impact on the online and real world, fuelling an almost Anti-Social Media Revolution. While people still use the platforms, the film has encouraged people around the world to use the apps more consciously. Even on my own feed, I have seen how people are striving to limit their screen time and talking openly about the way in which social media has affected their mental health in the past. This influence is no doubt going to reach the top, hopefully encouraging the current leaders of these popular platforms to introduce changes that will reverse the negative effects social media is having on our society.

We can only hope, I suppose, that we’ll eventually overcome this social dilemma.

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