“The Social Dilemma” is a documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski that is both disturbing and thought-provoking. It originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and can now be found on Netflix.
It follows a number of former software engineers of social media companies, former executives, professors, and investors as they share their experiences with these services and their fears for the future. These men and women detail their views on how humans are the products being sold to the advertisers on these sites.
They claim the main purpose of social media is to profit from ads and, the more time we spend on these apps, the more ad revenue the companies earn. A majority of the interviews share how these sites and apps were designed to hook its users, claiming the algorithm gets more accurate at predicting our next moves every time we use these services, thus creating an addiction.
The interviews and discussion are offset throughout the film with a fictional story about a family’s struggles with social media. Isla, a teenager and the youngest sibling, struggles with self-worth issues and compares herself with people she sees online. Initially, it felt like this story would focus on Isla, but her character was quickly forgotten.
Instead it highlighted Ben, the brother, who falls down a rabbit hole of political propaganda after initially just keeping tabs on his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. The film personifies Ben’s algorithm as three men in his phone making the decisions of what to show Ben in order to keep him engaged and produce more ad revenue.
These men are shown in a high-tech dungeon with a hologram avatar puppet-like version of Ben in front of them, manipulating him with notifications and eventual propaganda. Ben eventually ends up at a protest for an unknown cause and is arrested after getting caught in the middle of a brawl.
The addition of a fictional story intertwined with these very real accounts from these experienced professionals felt cringey and awkward. The interviewees mentioned real life examples of how “fake news” has erupted in riots and violence, so showing a fictional account of a similar situation felt like a waste of time and unnecessary. It felt like the producers and writers were basically saying “watch out sheeple.”
At times, the film also felt relatively condescending since the software engineers lectured the audience about the epidemic of social media addiction. However, it was a number of them that literally designed these softwares and algorithms. A lot of them, including Tim Kendall, former Director of Monetization at Facebook, talked about how their kids are not allowed to use social media. Pretty ironic.
“The Social Dilemma” ends with these interviewees leaving tips on how social media users can help curb their addiction. These tips include turning off notifications, not clicking on items the algorithm recommends, researching “news” seen on social media, … all of which seem pretty feeble right after they all said that social media has the power to ruin democracy.
Overall, this movie is an interesting and informative watch. Yet the patronizing, condescending tone displayed by the interview subjects makes the film occasionally hard to get through.