The Social Dilemma

The new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has released at a time where the content in that documentary has significance unlike any time before.  We have been seeing constant debates about multiple things in social media that pretty much confuses us on which one to believe and which one to avoid. The core of the documentary is showing us how a virtual space idea has become a business model that has the potential to destroy establishments like democracy, civilization, etc. due to its problematic structure.

We are posting this in the articles section as this isn’t precisely a review of The Social Dilemma. Somewhere I feel the need of the hour isn’t a review for something like this. Joining the conversation and making more people aware of the grave danger inside those social media apps is makes more sense. The word dilemma is the driving force of the documentary.  Almost after covering every aspect of this AI-driven revolution, the documentary kind of asks its guests about the solution, and nobody is able to give an articulated answer on what exactly is the problem. As I was watching the show, I also found myself in that perplexed mindset. Because for every problem they mention, one can see its dangerous and useful sides.

Are they selling my data to other people or companies for their financial gain? This is a question that often gets raised every time we enter a discussion about the bad side of social media. But this documentary addresses a bigger demon that nobody is addressing; what they do with the collected data. There is a transition happening in the results they are achieving through the algorithm they created using our data. And that transition is “improving” drastically. From the earlier days of predicting what the user could do, things are going out of hands to a situation where the app can manipulate the user to do a particular thing. If you look at it, even in India we have seen riots and mob lynching happening based on the posts shared on social media.

The person who dominates the screen time in this documentary by Jeff Orlowski is former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris. Along with him, we see Tim Kendall, Aza Raskin, Justin Rosenstein, Shoshana Zuboff, Jaron Lanier, and several others. The Social Dilemma isn’t really a whistleblower testimony material. They are all acknowledging the number of good things these social media websites have done in making the world a better place. But what they are addressing here is more of an ethical space in this business, and looking at it as a sheer business model could eventually cause major troubles for humanity.

There is a sense of outer world validation that everyone craves these days. The pre-teens, teens, and the ones in their twenties and thirties are glued to social media apps. The lack of likes for their photos, the comments they get about their appearances, etc are making them decide their life decisions. The frightening thing about this observation is that we don’t feel surprised while they talk about it because we know that it is a reality. The PDA we see on social media is mostly to avoid other speculations. We are mostly forced to put a status update just so that people don’t start to speculate anything about us.

Off late, the notification pattern in apps like Facebook, Instagram, etc has changed drastically. Today is your friend’s birthday, wish him, yesterday was your friend’s birthday, wish her, Your Facebook friend is now on Instagram follow them, etc and several other notifications are coming our way almost forcing us to take an action. There is a statement in the documentary that gathers everyone’s attention and that is “If you are not paying for it, then you are the product”. The advertisement revenue is the business model for social media apps. So in that sense, the advertisers are their end-users and the people who signed up for the social media apps are actually the product. And keeping us gelled on to the apps by providing anything that keeps us interested becomes the priority for all the social media apps.

The ad revenue business structure is actually causing a dilemma among the ones who are running these companies. Fake news is getting spread and the platforms aren’t really taking much of action because the user engagement is high for such material and it is totally up to the viewer to decide on how to use their social media accounts. Propaganda can be propagated through the algorithms making us believe in ideologies so strongly that we almost end up hating the other person who is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. And yet again the dilemma kicks in. Because when they say YouTube influencers can also be injecting their wrong perspectives into you, I am wondering about the good influences I have experienced through content that effectively explained stuff like racism, sexism, feminism, patriarchy, misogyny, etc.

Uninstalling all the social media apps and going back to a Nokia 1100 isn’t really the solution here. Staying up to date in an era where everyone has information available on their fingertips is a basic necessity. But we need to acknowledge the fact that we are all addicted to our phones. And we should strive to reduce that addiction. I won’t give the phone to my kid isn’t really a solution. Because that would be equivalent to our parents equating their childhood with ours. By doing simple stuff like removing apps that you really don’t need, turning off notifications of apps that you know is consuming your time unnecessarily we can in a way force the apps to change their algorithms.

The solution here is bleak and looking at the way negativity is trending and spreading all over the internet, the collective movement to force the companies to change their algorithms sounds like a naively optimistic way of looking at it. But this documentary that has managed to get the voices of people who were in powerful positions of these Social Media companies at one point will have a tremendous impact on you.

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Final Thoughts


Green: Recommended Content

Orange: The In-Between Ones

Red: Not Recommended